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In Cancer Cost Debate, It's Oncologist vs. Oncologist

August 03, 2015

The rising cost of cancer care is attributed to skyrocketing drug prices by some oncologists, but an organization made up of community-based cancer doctors argues that providers should be addressing the overall cost of cancer care, not just the price of chemotherapy and medications.

What drives the cost of cancer care? A group of prominent oncologists recently published a manifesto that points to the advent of $100,000 drugs and their impact on patient finances as indicators of out-of-control prices.

The pharmaceutical industry responded with data supporting the calculation that drugs and chemotherapy only account for 20% of the cost of cancer care and 1% of all healthcare spending.

It's a standard talking point for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, but now, a similar argument is emerging from an unlikely source—other doctors.

Ted Okon

Ted Okon, the executive director of the non-profit Community Oncology Alliance, argues that doctors should be addressing the overall cost of cancer care, not just the price of chemotherapy and medications. His read of the data suggests that drugs make up 25% of the cost of treating Medicare cancer patients, and a larger percentage of private pay patients.

He agrees that the price of cancer drugs is unsustainable and needs to be addressed.

"I believe that the 118 oncologists have every right to raise the issue of drug pricing, (but) they have to realize that the drug price is only part of the equation," he says. Okon thinks the costs associated with hospital care need to be addressed as well.

The oncologists who published their late July statement online in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings are affiliated with some of the most prestigious hospitals in cancer care and research, including the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Difficult Choices
Faced with high costs and copays, they note that "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 authors note that many of the players in the health care system, including hospitals, "can be financially conflicted when it comes to discussing rational drug prices." They call for a "cancer patient-based grassroots movement" to push for changes to allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices and allow patients to import lower cost drugs from Canada.

The two Mayo clinic authors speaking for the article were traveling and unavailable for comment last week.

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