How cancer drugs doubled to $10,000 per month

By: CBS
By: CBS
For cancer patients, life can be full of worry, pain and the stress of needing to take time off from a job. On top of that, many are struggling with a huge jump in the average price tag for branded oncology treatments, which have doubled to $10,000 per month in just a decade.

When 14-year-old Nick Wilkins' leukemia resisted chemotherapy, radiation and a bone marrow transplant, his doctors turned to the real pros: Nick's own immune cells. Using an experimental treatment, the doctors taught Nick's immune system to attack his cancer in much the same way he'd fight off the common cold. Two months later, Nick went into complete remission.

CBS - For cancer patients, life can be full of worry, pain and the stress of needing to take time off from a job. On top of that, many are struggling with a huge jump in the average price tag for branded oncology treatments, which have doubled to $10,000 per month in just a decade. During the same period, the consumer price index has increased by 23 percent.

That jump is contributing to a surge in global spending on oncology treatments, which reached a whopping $91 billion last year, according to a new report from the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics. The U.S. is the largest segment of that market, with American patients and their insurers paying $37.2 billion for oncology treatments in 2013.

The high cost of some new cancer drugs has raised ethical questions, as more than 100 cancer specialists last year wrote in a commentary that drug prices of $100,000 or more for treatments could be viewed as profiteering and may be causing financial harm to patients.

Some insured patients in the U.S. may be on the hook for covering 20 percent of their drug payments, no small matter when the monthly price for a prostate cancer treatment called Provenge is more than $71,000, according to the IMS study.

The study also found that patients were less likely to persist with treatment as the costs climbed. Even copays that were as low as $30 to $90 appeared to affect how long patients took their medication, with the fall-off in treatment more pronounced as copays got higher, the IMS study found.

"The evidence of patients stopping their therapy due to high out-of-pocket costs is alarming," Murray Aitken, executive director of the IMS Institute, said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "Fortunately there are patient assistance programs and other mechanisms available to help patients with this issue."

While that might be the case, other research has shown that cancer can deal a heavy financial blow to household finances. Cancer patients are more than two times as likely to file for bankruptcy compared with Americans without a cancer diagnosis, researchers from Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle wrote in a 2013 study.

Prices are also higher in the U.S. than in Europe, where medications are as much as 38 percent lower, the IMS study found. "In the U.S., there are very minimal, if any, discounts," the report noted.

Of course, cancer medications aren't the only ones seeing huge price increases. Dozens of brand-name drugs have doubled in price since 2007, Bloomberg News reported last week. Pharmaceutical companies are introducing new drugs at sky-high rates, such as Gilead Sciences' (GILD) new hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi, which costs $1,000 per day.

One reason for the introduction of new drugs at extremely high prices is that drugmakers are trying to recoup losses as older drugs lose their patent protections. But that means some patients are paying more for treatment, while others who rely on generics or less specialized medication have seen their costs decline.

Still, the IMS study highlighted a few bright spots. Among them: Cancer survival rates are climbing, with 20 percent of the improvement due to advances in treatment.
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