Prominent oncologist blasts cancer drug prices

The annual gathering of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is usually a showcase of the latest cancer treatment therapies and breakthroughs, but this year's conference in Chicago featured something new: A highly visible gripe session about the cost of drugs used to treat patients.

Leonard Saltz, M.D., chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, blasted the cost of cancer drugs during a speech to a large number of ASCO attendees, according to the Wall Street Journal.

"Cancer-drug prices are not related to the value of the drug," he told the audience during the ASCO plenary session, when speakers typically present research findings. "Prices are based on what has come before and what the seller believes the market will bear."

Drug prices have become an increasing burden on Americans, with 576,000 spending more than the nation's median household income on prescription medications last year, up 63 percent just from 2013. And some insured cancer patients can still wind up with bills of $100,000 or more due to the cost of their drugs.

Moreover, costs often cancel out advances in what oncology drugs can do. Saltz cited a new drug cocktail by Bristol-Myers that can stabilize metastatic melanoma patients for nearly a year on average, according to the Wall Street Journal.

But the cost is about $295,000 a year. Saltz said that if all cancer patients' drugs cost that much, it would cost $174 billion a year just for their medications.

Saltz also outlined a scenario where a patient receiving Merck & Co.'s Keytruda cancer drug could wind up costing nearly $1 million a year, PM Live reported

However, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America told the Wall Street Journal in a statement that the use of generics and hard negotiations by commercial payers had kept price increases in check.  

To learn more:
- read the Wall Street Journal article 
- check out the PM Live article

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