Expert on 60 Minutes: High-Priced Cancer Drugs 'Immoral'

Nick Mulcahy

October 06, 2014

A prominent American oncologist said that the high price of cancer drugs is "immoral" during a segment last night on the prominent television newsmagazine 60 Minutes.

"They are making prices unreasonable, unsustainable, and, in my opinion, immoral," said Hagop Kantarjian, MD, chair of the Department of Leukemia at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, referring to pharmaceutical companies and their cancer drugs.

Dr. Kantarjian is a high-profile critic of cancer drug prices and a coauthor of a much-publicized 2013 article that protested leukemia drug prices.

Last night's broadcast on cancer drug pricing informed the general public on issues that oncologists know only too well. In fact, all of the issues discussed on the broadcast have been reported extensively by Medscape Medical News.

The average price of new cancer drugs now averages more than $100,000 a year in the United States, said Leonard Saltz, MD, chief of the gastrointestinal oncology service at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. He is a long-time critic of cancer drug prices.

In general, "the price is too high," he asserted.

Are the high prices and out-of-pocket copays for patients "like a side effect of cancer?" asked 60 Minutes' reporter Leslie Stahl.

"I think that's a fair way of looking at it. We are starting to see the term 'financial toxicity' used in the literature," said Dr. Saltz. The phrase was coined by oncologist Amy Abernathy, MD, from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

The show also exposed what Dr. Kantarjian called the "unique" fact that the United States government — unlike its peers in industrialized nations — does not negotiate with drug companies for better prices.

In the United States, Medicare pays many of the oncology bills because most cancer patients are 65 years or older, which is the age that the government benefit starts.

But federal law disallows the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare to negotiate drug prices, Dr. Kantarjian pointed out.

"Prices are 50% to 80% lower" anywhere else in the world than they are in the United States, Dr. Kantarjian reported.

Playing the devil's advocate, Stahl countered with a specific example of a high-priced drug — imatinib (Gleevec, Novartis) — and noted that the company "says the price is fair because this is a miracle drug. It really works."

Dr. Kantarjian responded by saying that "the only drug that works is a drug that a patient can afford."

The pricing system for drugs in the United States is "dictated" by "the people who are making the drugs," observed Peter Bach, MD, also from Memorial Sloan Kettering.

And their system is one of "corporate chutzpah," said Dr. Bach, echoing a criticism that he made earlier this year — that pharmaceutical companies charge whatever the market will bear.

Dr. Kantarjian pointed out that, increasingly, older drugs also have inflated prices.

The price of imatinib "tripled from $28,000 a year in 2001 to $92,000 a year in 2012," he said.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recognized the importance of the 60 Minutes news coverage. The organization issued a statement this morning that "commends" the news report "for highlighting the fast-rising costs of cancer drugs."

"We recognize that high costs are causing many patients and families to face impossible choices during the most difficult time of their lives, with some patients delaying potentially life-saving treatments and others forced into personal bankruptcy," reads the statement.

ASCO is also proposing "payment reform" that would provide "consolidated payments for oncology care."

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