September 12, 2015

Financial Toxicity: Oncologists Call for Drug Pricing and Patent-Related Measures to Reduce Cost of Biotech Cancer Drugs

In an unusual foray into advocacy involving the pharmaceutical marketplace, a coalition of oncologists has published a call to action in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings regarding the high price of cancer drugs; the physicians advocate for a number of regulatory and legislative measures to reduce the cost of cancer drugs, increase market competition, and ultimately improve patient access. It has been evident for a while that while molecular research has resulted in the development of new therapeutic approaches to cancer – especially targeted biotech drugs – the price of some of these drugs has well exceeded both patient and physician expectations; hence, the term "financial toxicity." In just one example, the Amgen drug Blincyto, an immunotherapy for leukemia, can cost about $178,000 for a course of treatment. The recent attention to funding research on "precision medicine" from the NIH and the White House focused on how cancer treatment (new drugs) is one of the chief beneficiaries of these efforts. In the published commentary, the oncologists make several points: 
In 2014, all new US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved cancer drugs were priced above $120,000 per year of use.
For a patient with cancer who needs one cancer drug that costs $120,000 per year, the out-of-pocket expenses could be as high as $25,000 to $30,000—more than half the average household income and possibly more than the median take-home pay for a year. Patients with cancer then have to make difficult choices between spending their incomes (and liquidating assets) on potentially lifesaving therapies or foregoing treatment to provide for family necessities (food, housing, education). 
The commentary specifically calls for the following measures:
(1) Creating a post-FDA drug approval review mechanism to propose a fair price for new treatments, based on the value to patients and heath care.
(2) Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.
(3) Allowing the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, created through the Affordable Care Act initiatives to evaluate the benefits of new treatments, and similar organizations to include drug prices in their assessments of the treatment value.
(4) Allowing importation of cancer drugs across borders for personal use (e.g., prices in Canada are about half of prices in the United States).
(5) Passing legislation to prevent drug companies from delaying access to generic drugs (pay-for-delay).
(6) Reforming the patent system to make it more difficult to prolong product exclusivity unnecessarily (patent “evergreening”).
(7) Encouraging 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. 
A number of the suggested measures are familiar tactics, although not all in force. For example, the patent recommendations overlap with ongoing efforts to improve either patent quality or forestall dubious attempts to extend the term of lucrative patents (the “evergreening” phenomenon, for example, has been countered using patent law theories of double patenting). The phenomenon of “pay for delay” in which brand name companies pay would-be generic competitors to stay out of the market has encountered the Supreme Court’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) v. Actavis decision in 2013 which endorsed antitrust inquiries into such arrangements; the Federal Trade Commission actively monitors such agreements. The call for the FDA to incorporate a pricing determinant in the drug approval process runs counter to any agency mandate to consider such questions in its regulatory work. Federal legislation to allow patients to import prescription drugs from Canada has been introduced, but not enacted. The call for the government to allow Medicare to negotiate bulk pricing with drug companies has been a political football for more than a decade since the enactment of Medicare Part D prohibited that option; the Obama administration has endorsed such negotiations, but the realities of Congress today make that unlikely. With respect for the calls to professional organization, the American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is actively pursuing methods for drug valuation that incorporate pricing. Despite these particulars, the Mayo commentary lines up with other public acts of priced-based resistance from the oncology community, such prescribing refusals based on cost (e.g., Sloan-Kettering oncologist practices) or cost-consciousness in prescribing practices. The article further endorses a consumer petition drive which seeks patient support for these efforts. A critical mass of attention is developing to the high pricing of new biotech cancer drugs; the British medical journal Lancet published a recent editorial: 
It therefore seems depressingly clear that industry's inflated pricing of new cancer drugs is contributing to a failure of health systems to offer promising new therapies to the very people for whom the drugs are created—cancer patients worldwide.
It should be noted that despite the Lancet's pessimism, the U.K. did actually establish a Cancer Drugs Fund under the National Health Service to target assistance to those needing expensive cancer drugs; however, as just announced, the fund is over-budget and now restricting which drugs will be covered.

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