WBUR examined fast-moving changes in cancer research and treatment in a series we're calling, "This Moment In Cancer."
Leaders in cancer research say the field has reached a pivotal moment, including the discovery of new treatments. But, these new treatments come with a price tag that many experts believe is unsustainable.
Richard Knox joined Morning Edition to discuss the rising costs associated with cancer drugs. Below is a transcription of our conversation with him.
Richard Knox: New cancer drugs are being approved at a fast pace: dozens a year. And many more are in the pipeline. In the past, these drugs might cost around $10,000 for a year’s treatment. But one recent study found newly-approved cancer drugs carry price tags between $120,000 and $170,000.
Bob Oakes: What's behind this enormous increase?
Knox: It’s complicated, and drug companies don’t reveal what goes into their pricing decisions. But one factor is a 2003 federal law that bars Medicare from negotiating over drug prices. And Medicare Part D — the drug benefit which went into effect 11 years ago — requires Medicare to pay for all approved drugs. Taken together, this means drug companies can charge whatever they want.
Oakes: Big picture, Dick, what are the implications of this trend?
Knox: They’re big – for the health care system and for cancer patients and their families.
One recent study looked at what’s happened with just one treatment for a blood cancer called CLL. Last year, the FDA approved a two-drug combination that’s revolutionized the treatment of CLL. Newly-diagnosed patients on this regimen can now expect to live seven years, and often much longer. And side effects are greatly reduced. But the price tag for each drug is about $130,000, and patients need to take them for the rest of their lives.
Jagpreet Chhatwal of Mass General Hospital, who led the study, tells me the new treatment has tripled the cost of treating a patient with this one type of cancer.
Chhatwal: We find that on average the lifetime cost of treatment with these new therapies would be $600,000.
Knox: And because patients will live much longer, the total number of patients with CLL — all needing lifetime treatment — is rising rapidly. So the total cost burden for the health care system is soaring too.
Oakes: What about the implications for patients?
Knox: Chhatwal says the out-of-pocket costs for patients has gone up even faster.
Chhatwal: That cost is substantial, it's more than $50,000. And if you compare treatments with previous therapies, out-of-pocket cost was around $10,000. So we're talking about a 500 percent increase in out-of-pocket cost of treatment.