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Costs of Cancer Care?

Part of the heartache of cancer is that surviving it is ultimately a game of statistics. There are no assurances – except in the worst case scenarios where they are grim.

Even determining the best treatment is a matter of weighing likelihoods rather than having clear-cut solutions. On top of all that, patients must deal with the cost of various treatments.

Fortunately, cancer death rates have been falling in recent years – for several reasons:

  • There is more and more information available on how to prevent cancer.
  • Regular screening can catch the disease in early stages when it’s more treatable.
  • Innovative drugs and medical research are progressing every day, but many of these drugs are increasingly too expensive for patients to afford.

However, the cost of cancer care is rising 15% a year, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

  • The average price of a cancer drug prescription went up to over $1,800 a month in 2007, almost a 16% increase
    • compared with conventional illness brand-name prescriptions, which run roughly $90 to $120 a month.
    • Advanced biotech drugs frequently put the price of treatment in the six digits.
  • Drug companies, in order to to expand the market for their drugs, push for “label expansion”: FDA approval to use existing cancer drugs – limited to use with specific cancers – for more types of cancer treatment, sometimes despite unclear evidence of their effectiveness.
  • Patients are living longer with the disease, which is good, but it means they must endure the price tag of more treatments over their lifetime.

When facing these costs, a patient with colon cancer that’s metastasized throughout their body might draw up a pro/con list for their treatment options like they would for any tough decision. It might look something like this:

Treatment A Treatment
Price Costs $60,00 less – won’t bankrupt my family
Effectiveness Prolongs life on average several months more – get to see my youngest graduate
Side effects Nerve damage in hands and feet – can’t hold my newborn granddaughter Hair loss – my boss might figure out I have cancer and fire me -> lose coverage

Information about cost to be given to patients: Leading cancer experts have now decided that patients should not be forced to make these no-win decisions on their own. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network – a professional medical organization that along with others sets treatment guidelines for the disease – had its 13th Annual Conference earlier this month. Most of the oncologists in attendance agreed that information about cost should be a part of treatment guidelines and the advice doctors give to their patients.

Call to permit generic versions of specialty biotech drugs: Meanwhile, those currently with the most influence in our market-based system – health care system employers, health plans and pharmacy-benefit managers – are joining together to push for federal legislation to permit generic versions of specialty biotech drugs. They cite evidence that spending on specialty biologics – up 14% in 2007 – is one of the prime causes of increasing health costs.

  • Generic versions typically become 80% cheaper than their brand-name competitor within their first 6 months on the market.
  • Bills that would allow for cheaper biotech drugs have been introduced in Congress, but no agreement has been reached over details.

For more on this, see The High Cost of a Cancer Drug

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Michele McGough April 12, 2008, 3:52 pm

    I just heard a blurb on the radio by Obama saying that Medicare cannot negotiate prices with the pharma companies. He also stated that the head of the Medicare “board” or group that negotiated the deals with the pharma companies left soon after to join a pharma company and make $2M. My comment is why has not AARP or some other organization made this a priority? Obviously I am missing some of the facts….

  • Maggie Mahar April 20, 2008, 4:46 pm


    I just saw your very interesting comment on a post I had done on http://www.healthbeatblog.org a couple of weeks ago.
    This in turn led me to your stie.

    I’m now writing a piece on pharma and its lobbyists for
    TPM cafe and plan to quote you —

    I’m also subscribing to get e-mail updates from your site-
    Best, Maggie Mahar

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