Why ICER Can't Be Trusted

  • by: Robert Goldberg |
  • 08/15/2016
ICER has come out with a response to what it defines as myths about it’s funding, approach and mission.  The rejoinder is an excellent example of President Kennedy’s observation that “the great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”

ICER wants to be perceived as trusted non profit organization that is identifying the best medicines at prices patients can afford.  As ICER puts it: “How can we make sure that we can afford the innovation we want for patients in the future?” 

And it believes, led by Steve Pearson, ICER’s believer in chief, tha unless ICER rolls up their sleeves to determine the prices of new medicines and who should get them  drug spending “would contribute to an increase in overall health care costs at a rate greater than growth in the overall national economy, (and) health system value would be diminished.”

ICER’s publication takes issue with several so-called myths. Some of them address criticism about their belief that an additional year of life is at maximum worth $150K.  Another deals with how little ICER includes patient perspectives of health value.  I will deal with those in another post. 

For now,   I will deal with the criticisms I have raised about ICER that it has tried to refute 

Myth #5: ICER wants to take money from dying patients in order to “fix potholes.”

 ICER claims “much of the more recent criticism has been fueled by a lack of knowledge about ICER or even willful mischaracterization by those who oppose a move toward pricing in alignment with the added value for patients.  Some of these distortions have taken on a life of their own, threatening to make it more difficult for patient groups and others to engage constructively in our report development and in the broader debates now going on about value assessment and drug pricing.”

In particular, ICER is ticked off  that I claimed that ICER wants to take money from dying patients in order to “fix potholes.”  Let’s give Pearson and ICER the floor:


This is one of the more remarkable and malicious mischaracterizations of our intentions.
In introducing the broader social and ethical questions that ICER reports are supposed to help address through public dialogue, we have shown data from the state of Massachusetts demonstrating that state spending on health care has risen nearly 60% in the last decade. We also show data on where that money came from: steep reductions in spending on every other major type of social service, including education, fire and police protection, housing, public health, and infrastructure.  The same story is echoed in state houses around the country: health care costs are growing rapidly, severely impinging on the ability of states to maintain other services.  This obviously does not imply that ICER wants dying patients to be denied treatment in order to fix potholes.  What it does mean is that we hope that our reports and the public meetings we convene can lead to a more robust and honest discussion about the real choices and trade-offs that are being made in spending at the state and national level.  If the shared hope is to be able to provide innovative drugs for all patients with serious illness, and to be able to also afford good education for our children and other services, then we believe that transparent discussions about whether prices for drugs and other health care services are reasonably aligned with the value they bring to patients are an important way to help us get there.”

It is true that I posted a blog  “ICER's Moral Vision: Repair Potholes Instead of Rescuing Lung Cancer Patients”

I used that title because it seemed to capture Pearson’s moral vision. Here’s what he said about lung cancer treatments in article he wrote in 2012 entitled "Which Orphans Will Find a Home":

“Considering…the marginal impact on the length and quality of life, and the implicit opportunity costs of this level of expenditure, our framework would suggest that public and private insurers would be justified in refusing to pay for cetuximab (a lung cancer drug).”

Of note, Pearson claims that lung cancer patients aren't really that sick.  They are just louder than other groups.  Pearson claims just because an advocacy group creates awareness of a specific disease or need, that's no reason to cover new  medicines.  In the case of lung cancer drugs Pearson writes: demand is" driven largely by the heightened public consciousness" and that there is "no..obligation to rescue identifiable rare disease patients based on a duty of rescue within personal morality."

Which ties into another charge I have raised that ICER seeks to rebut: the use of QALY’s discriminates against the sickest patients is a myth. (So-called)  It claims:

“In fact, starting out with a lower quality of life, whether through a serious illness or disability, offers more “room” for improvement, giving treatments for patients with serious conditions more opportunity to show improvement compared to treatments for patients whose baseline condition is already near perfect health.”

But that is NOT how QALY is applied.  Pearson has stated “a sickest-first principle might require allocation of resources even when only minor gains can be achieved and the cost is very high, which is obviously inefficient…coverage decisions must not only incorporate consideration of the benefits gained but the opportunity costs incurred when covering expensive orphan drugs.”

And contrary to Pearson’s claim about not considering cost in recommending what drugs to use, he and ICER are clearly targeted what they believe are “ the growing number of expensive therapies that offer benefit only to small populations” to “ensure that an undue burden is not
placed on others for the sake of a few.” 

In addition, ICER and Pearson regards living longer, the result produced cumulatively by new drugs, as a cost which, if it exceeds a specific amount of spending per drug estalblished by ICER, would diminish health system value.  

Indeed, as ICER points out it's measurement of QALY is conducted " from a health system perspective, and so does not incorporate costs and effects that might be relevant from a societal perspective, such as productivity, transportation, or caregiver costs."

Moreover,  ICER measures costs as the combination of "new treatment on top of existing treatment, as is the case for multiple myeloma drugs.." That "means that to reach standard cost-effectiveness levels the entire regimen, including the older, existing drugs that are part of the regimen, would need to be deeply discounted, or certain costs must be considered “unrelated” and excluded from the economic evaluation.
Pearson's response: "At current wholesale acquisition costs, the estimated long-term cost-effectiveness of these regimens exceeds commonly-cited thresholds."  

In other words, myeloma treatments surge about the ICER QALY cap of $150K because people are living longer and have more options to increase survival.  They are therefore, from ICER's perspective (and the insurer's perspective a noted above) new drugs that extend life will NEVER be cost-effective. 

With regard to the pothole vs dying patient “myth" I was simply writing based on a FAQ that ICER had posted on it’s website until recently but is no longer available:

“When we’re paying for drugs and don’t know the drug’s value, individually, we may pay more out of pocket and more for insurance. While if we’re covered at work and our employer is paying more in premiums, we may not get as big a raise as we otherwise would have. We also pay more in taxes as the government (Medicare, Medicaid, and federal employees) has to pay more for health care.  We’re siphoning off resources for other things we need like better schools and more resources for local police, roads and bridges.”

But the claim that spending money on drugs drains money away from other services is an outright falsehood.

Source: National Assoc. of State Budget Officers

As the chart above demonstrates, state Medicaid spending has increased slightly, while other expenditures have remained stable or increased slightly.  (Transportation being an exception.)  Doesn't look like a siphon to me. 

And here’s a look at the Massachusetts budget ICER claims is being savaged by the use of drugs that are expensive and not very valuable (like drugs for dying lung cancer patients, as Pearson suggested.) 

Source: Massbudget.org

Turns out Medicaid spending in Massachusetts declined as a percentage of total state spending from 2004-2014.

Finally, let me show that for all of ICER’s deception and spin, Medicaid spending on drugs has remained about the same percentage of total Medicaid spending for the past decade.   

(Source, CMS) 

Ask yourself this question: If we can't trust ICER to present accurate data about the impact of drug spending on our economy or governent expenditures, can we trust it, as it wants us to do, to determine patient access to new medicines?


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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