Are New Cancer Treatments Worth the New Costs?

Cancer. What does that one word spark in you? For many, it conjures a feeling of anguish over a loved one who passed away. For others, that feeling of anguish is present but overridden with one of anxiety. This anxiety is due to an array of factors, the most common often that of the cost of cancer treatment. According to the National Cancer Society, by the end of 2015, there will be an estimated 589,430 deaths attributed to cancer. While many cancers are curable if the right treatments are taken, actually obtaining the treatment is the problem.

Forbes Staff Member Matthew Herper, in his article “New Cancer Treatments Cost Too Damn Much,” explains how even though there are increasingly more effective drugs to treat cancer, the costs are rising at an astronomical rate. He uses an example of a groundbreaking treatment developed in 2014 by the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb that dramatically diminished the presence of melanoma within a patient. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and affects more than double the amount the of population it did a few decades ago. More explicitly, this translates to affecting 100,000 people in 1982, to affecting 22.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2011. Thus, it made headlines that the pharmaceutical company had released such a novel drug to potentially cure the thousands of Americans afflicted with this type of cancer. You know what also made headlines? The cost. For the average patient, this would mean forking over $295,566. Depending on the insurance plan, some of this will be covered by an insurance company. However even with insurance, patients end up paying a large portion of that cost out-of-pocket due to co-pays and co-insurances. To reiterate that point, MIT explains in a study released entitled “Prices of Cancer Drugs have soared since 1995,” cancer treatment costs have risen about 120 percent for each year of life gained by a patient. While more life is gained, a lot more money is lost.

The reason behind the astronomical prices of treatment for cancer patients is that in the cancer industry, the rule of supply and demand works backwards. Unlike the typical supply and demand relationship where more companies create more competition translating to a lower cost for a product, an increase in cancer treatment companies leads to higher prices for the same medicine.

To elaborate on that point, In the same Forbes article mentioned before, Herper gives an example of Gleevec, the a treatment for Leukemia developed by pharmaceutical company Novartis. When it’s treatment for Leukemia that was released in 2001, the cost was $24,000. At the time, such an amount was so outrageous to spend on any health care treatment that Daniel Vasella, Novartis’s CEO, released a statement saying that he acknowledged “the price was high” but it was “fair given all the factors.” Within 15 years, more companies entered the melanoma treatment market and the price for a patient to receive Gleevec increased to $90,000. Herper explains how more and more companies were entering into the market with higher marketed melanoma products, leading Gleevec to raise it’s product’s cost as well.

According to an article written by Mustaqeem Siddiquia and S. Vincent Rajkumar in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, pharmaceutical companies producing cancer treatment have developed a monopoly. This is due to the fact that unlike most illnesses, there is not one singular drug that cures it in a specified amount of time. Instead, each drug produced by a company has a limited time in which it will work in the patient, and once that is exhausted doctors move on to the next treatment option. For example, in the case of pneumonia, there are many antibiotics that can be effective in treating the illness and more than one antibiotic is typically not needed. Thus, if a patient decides he/she prefers one company’s antibiotic over the next, he/she will choose that antibiotic and overcome the illness in a specified amount of time. Adding to that, if a pharmaceutical company decided to raise the price of an antibiotic, it would lose profit to the other pharmaceutical companies that offer the same type of effective antibiotic at a cheaper price. Thus, unlike that of cancer treatments, pharmaceutical antibiotics for pneumonia are kept low in order to stay in competition with one another.

As in the case of Novartis and many other cancer drugs available on the market, the current cost of cancer treatments and the rate in which cancer treatment prices are increasing just aren’t sustainable in the long-term. The question that persists is how to address such a problem.

One current solution proposed by different health officials is the production of generic drugs produced in other countries then sold in the United States at a fraction of the cost. If the FDA approves some of these companies, there is potential for astronomical savings for cancer patients.

Another potential answer to part of the problem is for patients to take more precautionary measures to avoid being afflicted with the disease. For example, having regular check ups at the doctor is one recommendation by health care professionals because when cancers such as melanoma are discovered in their early stages, they’re much more easily treated and much less expensive. Preventative measures are also highly recommended by health care professionals, such as limiting exposure to the UV lights, maintaining a healthy diet and refraining from tobacco use.

According to the National Cancer Society, by the end of this year, close to 600,000 people are expected to die of cancer. By the end of the year, an additional one million people will be put as risk to becoming a part of this statistic due to being diagnosed with the disease. While there is no clear and definite cure to cancer, there are ways of coping with it. It’s time to make the coping with cancer aspect available to more citizens with lower costs for treatment options.

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