Cancer Docs Allege Big Pharma Greed is Ruinously Out of Control

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July 22, 2015; Fierce Pharma and National Public Radio, “Shots”

The skyrocketing price of drugs has led to growing anger not just among patients but doctors as well. The cost of prescription medication can wipe out a family financially in short order. What’s more, some of the drugs being prescribed have only a marginal effect, if any at all.

Yesterday, 118 doctors signed onto a commentary in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings alleging that the price of cancer drugs is threatening not only the care of patients but the health and sustainability of healthcare overall. In fact, they say, the prices of those drugs have escalated five- to tenfold over a 15-year period, with the average cost for a year exceeding the annual income of the average family. They allege that pharma greed is out of control.

“These drug prices are completely unsustainable,” says Dr. Ayalew Tefferi of the Mayo Clinic. “Pharmaceutical companies are in greed mode, and it’s sad. It’s what I call completely unregulated…. It’s time for patients and their physicians to call for change.”

The group says the following actions would improve the situation and allow market forces to work better:

  • Create a post-U.S. Food and Drug Administration drug approval review mechanism to propose a fair price for new treatments that is based on the value to patients and heath care.
  • Allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
  • Allow the Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute, created through the Affordable Care Act, to evaluate the benefits of new treatments and similar organizations to include drug prices in their assessments of the treatment value.
  • Allow importation of cancer drugs across borders for personal use. (For example, prices in Canada are about half of prices in the U.S.)
  • Pass legislation to prevent drug companies from delaying access to generic drugs (“pay for delay”).
  • Reform the patent system to make it more difficult to prolong product exclusivity unnecessarily (patent “evergreening”).
  • Encourage organizations that represent cancer specialists and patients (e.g., American Society of Clinical Oncology, American Society of Hematology, American Association for Cancer Research, American Cancer Society, National Comprehensive Cancer Network) to consider the overall value of drugs and treatments in formulating treatment guidelines.

The doctors also reference a petition on Change.org that asks the Secretary of Health and Human Services for Relief.

On the same day, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation made a $5.2 million grant to the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) to more broadly investigate U.S. drug pricing. Part of the investigation will focus on relative benefits in comparison to cost—an issue also identified by the doctors’ statement referenced above.

“The United States spends more on health care than any other nation. Yet it does not produce the best results,” LJAF Vice President of Venture Development Kelli Rhee said in a statement. “By expanding the use of evidence and evaluation, ICER will help develop a fairer, more effective system that will allow hospitals and medical centers to improve patient health while lowering costs.”

ICER, however, is only expected to produce 10–20 reports in its first two years. Meanwhile, patients and their families are being buried under unsustainable costs.

I think we can expect to see this effort to gather steam quite quickly and gain legislative support. Still, big pharma is famous for its high dollar lobbying—paid for by people who are very sick, and now very broke.—Ruth McCambridge