Cary Gross and Abbe Gluck of Yale University get the Billy Madison award for the most incoherent and idiotic article about drug pricing. The piece: Soaring Cost of Cancer Treatment: Moving Beyond Sticker Shock published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology). There was a lot of competition but the authors managed to synthesize every pedestrian and inchoate assault on drug companies into an editorial that took the genre (if I can use this word without disparaging real scholarship) to a new level.
The failing heart of the article, entitled can be obtained by reading one paragraph: ( I am sparing you the painful waste of time required to slog through the entire article and endure the smell of decomposing bromides)
“We know that the cost of cancer drugs has increased dramatically, even though most drugs are brought into the market without compelling evidence that they prolong survival or improve quality of life. We know that these high costs render state-of-the-art cancer treatment unaffordable to patients without insurance and even to some patients with insurance. Furthermore, financial distress associated with paying for cancer treatment is common and is associated with stress, decreased adherence, bankruptcy, and worse outcomes. Finally, we know that the cost of new drugs is not well correlated with their effectiveness, nor with the presence of competing products.”
The authors then conclude that price controls and stricter formularies are the only way to control prices and help patients.
I won’t take on every citation Gross and Gluck (Gross-Gluck sounds like a Borscht Belt act) use to assert perfect knowledge about the havoc price increases have had on society. It is enough to say that once again, they all are written by people on the Arnold Foundation payroll. Or maybe not. As I and Peter Pitts pointed out, the most prolific of the paid hacks, Vinay Prasad, had an article published that was brazenly misleading and inaccurate. (Shame on the medical journals that continue to publish any anti-pharma crap if it fits the narrative.)
So here is my fact-based response to the fictional claims to support government regulation of access to new medicines.
1. As the number (and price) of targeted treatments have increased the percent of health care dollars devoted to cancer spending has remained at 4.6 percent. How? New cancer drugs reduce spending on more expensive medical services. In 2001, 64 percent of cancer care went to hospitals and only 3.6 percent to drugs. By 2016 drug spending ‘skyrocketed’ to about 25 percent of cancer costs but hospitalizations dropped to 38 percent of care. That’s why a government study concluded, “The net value of (cancer) treatment has grown substantially, consistent with medical technology improving over time and leading to better health outcomes at a lower cost per patient.” All these benefits have been generated by new medicines that are only .7 percent of health spending. This relationship – newer, initially expensive medicines (that go generic by the way) reducing the cost of care by letting people live longer and eliminating the need for other medicines -- has held up for nearly half a century.
2. GrossGluck enable the PBM payoff racket by remaining silent on the role PBMs and insurers play in setting cost-sharing levels.
As scientists find the shut-off switch for specific cancer-causing genes, they can make pills that go after cancer cells and block the specific biological mechanisms that produce them. These pills are not only less toxic than conventional IV chemotherapy; they've turned once-incurable cancers such a myeloma, breast cancer, and even pancreatic cancer into manageable diseases. They reduce the cost of cancer care over time but PBMs and insurers have responded by making these medicines more expensive and shifting patients to drugs that pay the most rebates.
Sadly, several studies show, 25 percent of patients don't even fill their initial prescriptions for cancer pills when the co-pays exceed $500. Even more will stop or interrupt treatment. Neither Medicare nor private health insurers are closing the gap between coverage and innovation. Instead, a survey of plans conducted by the Zitter Group found that insurers "recognize that oral therapy cost-sharing requirements actively encourage patients to use infusible products.
A Milliman study found that shifting to co-insurance would only add about $2 per member per month in private health plans. GrossGluck never discuss this solution. Instead, they remain true to the Arnold Foundation edict to give PBMs a pass. By the way, neither has advocated for co-pay reforms that could relieve the burden on patients.
3. They ignore the impact of government price controls on access and innovation. But then again, those with perfect knowledge trust themselves to makes decisions on behalf of everyone else. They don’t mention the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence or NICE but they see it as a model for how experts would set prices and determine access for everyone.
So, it is useful to know that NICE has turned down more new cancer drugs than other countries, even in Europe. Hence, 5-year survival rates for all cancers are lower in the UK than in any other European country. It’s mortality rates for many cancers, including breast, prostate, kidney, and others are higher. A study published in Lancet Oncology on cancer survival rates in Europe found.
“Cancer survival rates in Britain still lag well behind many other European countries, a study shows. Survival rates for nine out of ten common cancers are lower than the European average, despite improvements in diagnosis and treatment.
And the discrepancy is even worse among elderly sufferers. Patients with nearly all forms of the disease are more likely to die in Britain compared with patients in France, Germany, Spain, and Scandinavia.
For breast cancer, it found that British women have a 79 percent chance of surviving five years, compared with 86 percent in France, 87 percent in Finland, 85 percent in Norway and 82 percent on average.
Only 9 per cent of lung cancer patients in the UK live beyond five years, compared with the 13 per cent average, 17 per cent in Austria and 15 per cent in Sweden.
For prostate cancer, just under 81 percent of patients in Britain live beyond five years. The rate is 90 percent in Finland and 89 percent in France. Around 68 per cent of over-75s with breast cancer survive beyond five years, compared with 75 percent across Europe. About 45 percent of men over 85 with prostate cancer live for at least five years. The average is 58 percent.”
The only evidence they cite for the effectiveness of their approach is the now old case of Peter Bach claiming he saved patients money by refusing to add Zaltrap to the formulary.
(Indeed, it is ironic that Bach became crypto famous by getting Sanofi to cut the price of a cancer drug by 50 percent and writing about it in a New York Times op-ed piece. )
The duo asserted that they wouldn’t prescribe the drug because it cost twice as much as Genentech’s Avastin (bevacizumab), a competing biologic drug with similar expected clinical outcomes for colorectal cancer patients. In response, Sanofi said they would reduce the price of the drug by 50 percent. In fact, doctors and prescribing hospitals benefited hugely from Sanofi’s pricing move, while payers and patients did not. Zaltrap was sold in a dose twice as large as Avastin, thus the price discrepancy. Further, Sanofi didn’t cut the price of Zaltrap; it gave Memorial Sloan a 50 percent rebate. The price charged to patients remained the same. Which meant that MSKCC raked in even more dough. As an article in Health Affairs noted at the time, “Meanwhile, in the near term, physicians and hospitals will likely enjoy additional revenue opportunities from ziv-aflibercept use. the spread may be considerable: equal to $250 per treatment dose (insurer + patient reimbursement ($750) – discounted acquisition cost ($500)) and for 340B eligible purchases, $450 per treatment dose (insurer + patient reimbursement ($750) – discounted acquisition cost ($300)). Additional revenues may incentivize physicians and hospitals to favor ziv-aflibercept over bevacizumab to treat colorectal cancer among Medicare-eligible patients, despite the treatments having equivalent expected clinical outcomes. The strength of the incentive is based on comparing the magnitude of the spread obtained with the use of Zaltrap to that obtained with Avastin."
For this half-baked convoluted diatribe, GrossGluck get the Billy Madison award:
Principal: Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points and may G-d have mercy on your soul.