New York, New York - The administration at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center hopes that all the decisions it makes are in its patients’ best interest. This week, however, they hope that one major decision will send a message to pharmaceutical companies that are selling cancer drugs at astronomical rates. Doctors are refusing to give a new cancer drug to advanced colorectal cancer victims, simply because the drug will cost twice as much as what’s now on the market and due to the fact that it’s really no better than the drug the hospital is using now.
In an article on the New York Times Op-Ed page, physicians Peter B. Bach, Leonard B. Saltz, and Robert E. Wittes wrote an open letter to readers, explaining the hospital’s choice as a “no-brainer” and citing the rising costs of cancer care in America as one of the reasons for their decision. The new drug, Zaltrap, would cost more than $11,000 for a month of treatment and Sloan-Kettering simply sees no reason to offer it at this time.
“In most industries something that offers no advantage over its competitors and yet sells for twice the price would never even get on the market. But that is not how things work for drugs,” the letter explained. “The Food and Drug Administration approves drugs if they are shown to be ‘safe and effective.’ It does not consider what the relative costs might be once the new medicine is marketed.”
The doctors note that it is no longer practical to avoid looking at the cost of certain cancer treatment regimens. “When choosing treatments for a patient, we have to consider the financial strains they may cause alongside the benefits they might deliver,” the doctors wrote, noting that a 2011 study reported that at least 2 percent of cancer patients had to declare bankruptcy due to the overwhelming cost of their care. In 2006, when prices were slightly lower, about one-fourth of cancer patients surveyed said they had used up all or most of their savings for their treatment.
The authors also note that because colorectal cancer – and a host of other cancers – is often diagnosed in older Americans, financial concerns become even more important. For example, the average age of individuals who develop asbestos-caused mesothelioma cancer is about 74 years old. Many of these patients are on Medicare and living on a fixed income. That makes condoning drugs like Zaltrap a travesty, the doctors say, because that means the average Medicare patient would have to pay more than $2,000 out of their pocket each month for treatment.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering hopes that other major cancer centers will follow suit and reject drugs offered at such exorbitant costs. “…if no one else will act, leading cancer centers and other research hospitals should. The future of our health care system, and of cancer care, depends on our using our limited resources wisely,” the letter stated.