A More Complete Picture on the Issue of Access to Cancer Medicines

A More Complete Picture on the Issue of Access to Cancer Medicines

01.25.12 | By Greg Lopes

In his recent commentary, Merill Goozner of the Fiscal Times looks at the affordability of cancer medicines. Goozner rightly points out that the biopharmaceutical industry is continuing to invest heavily in new treatments for this disease. However, access to treatment for chronic conditions such as cancer is a complex issue and the commentary fails to tell the entire story.

As an industry trade organization, PhRMA does not address specific products or their prices. However, I'd like to make a few points on the issue that the piece does not:

First, while the commentary touches on the research and development investments companies are making in the fight against cancer, it should be highlighted that advances in medicines have already greatly improved outcomes for many patients. Since 1980, life expectancy for cancer patients has increased by about three years and 83 percent of those gains are attributable to new treatments, including medicines, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Another component of this issue is co-payments for medicines. Average cost sharing for prescription drugs is higher than for other health care services and can be a burden for many chronically ill patients. One recent study found that patients paid an average of about 46 percent out of pocket for prescription drugs, compared to 17 percent for outpatient services and 18-21 percent for an emergency room visit. This is an area of concern because when co-payments get too high, research shows that patients may start to abandon their treatments.

Even in the area of oncology, such nonadherence is a serious problem. A study in the Journal of Oncology Practice and the American Journal of Managed Care finds that 10 percent of cancer patients did not fill their initial prescriptions for oral anti-cancer drugs and another 23 percent had a delay in initiating therapy. Several factors impacted the likelihood of prescription abandonment, including high cost sharing. Patients with cost-sharing over $500 had an abandonment rate of 25 percent, more than four times higher than patients with cost-sharing under $100.

The authors of the study conclude, "The results of this study highlight the importance of identifying strategies to minimize the impact of high cost sharing requirements in prescription drug plans so that they do not pose a barrier to access to newer oral therapies for patients diagnosed with cancer, thereby denying patients the potential benefits of these effective agents."

It is crucial that we do everything we can to continue the fight against cancer through development of new treatments, and it is also crucial to ensure we help patients to access the medicines currently available. We can do both.

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