Study Shows US Cancer Drug Costs Increasing Despite Competition

nurse preparing infusion

A study published in Journal of Clinical Oncology shows that once cancer drugs go on the market, their prices tend to increase over time, sometimes sharply, even in the face of competition. According to the study, prices are rising faster than inflation.

Israel-based researcher Noa Gordon, of Ben-Gurion University, a co-author on the study, said the purpose of the study was to take a systematic look at a group of drugs to judge what if any forces in the market are influencing price changes.

High drug prices can have a severe impact on the financial well-being as well as the physical well-being of cancer patients. In a national household survey sponsored by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), one-fourth of people worried about paying for cancer treatment reported postponing prescriptions, cutting pills in half, or doing something else against doctors’ orders to cut costs.  

These attempts at cost-cutting may lead to under-dosing or inadequate side effect management. Other studies have shown that severe financial hardship leads to worse health outcomes, including earlier death.

Drug prices increased an average 18% after inflation

Gordon and the rest of her team looked at 24 patented, injectable Medicare Part B drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 1996 and 2012 to treat cancer. They compared them using the average sales prices published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Some people may have different costs due to discounts or reimbursements, as well as individual copays and deductibles.

After an average follow-up period of 8 years, the price of the drugs increased an average 25% – or 18% after adjusting for inflation. Even when generic versions of drugs became available, the prices still increased.

Overall, most of the injectable drug costs in the study continued to rise after launch. For example:

  • Adcetris (brentuximab), marketed by Seattle Genetics, cost an average $19,482 a month when it was approved in 2011 to treat some types of lymphoma, and has gone up 29% after adjusting for inflation.
  • Alimta (pemetrexed), marketed by Eli Lilly, cost an average $5,026 a month when it was approved in 2004 to treat some types of lung cancer, and has gone up 27% after adjusting for inflation.
  • Arranon (nelarabine), marketed by Novartis, cost an average $18,513 a month when it was approved in 2005 to treat some types of leukemia and lymphoma, and has gone up 55% after adjusting for inflation.
  • Folotyn (pralatrexate), marketed by Spectrum Pharmaceutical, cost an average $31,684 a month when it was approved in 2009 to treat some types of lymphoma, and has gone up 31% after adjusting for inflation.
  • Herceptin (trastuzumab), marketed by Genentech, cost an average $3,476 a month when it was approved in 2006 to treat some types of breast cancer, and has gone up 44% after adjusting for inflation.
  • Marqibo (liposomal vincristine), marketed by Spectrum Pharmaceutical, cost an average $34,602 a month when it was approved in 2012 to treat some types of leukemia, and has gone up 18% after adjusting for inflation.
  • Torisel (temsirolimus), marketed by Wyeth, cost an average $4,791 a month when it was approved in 2007 to treat some types of kidney cancer, and has gone up 24% after inflation.

Authors say regulation changes could help

The study authors note that prices are often higher in the US than they are in other countries for the same drug. Unlike other countries, the US limits Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices with manufacturers.

Gordon says one desired outcome of the study is to provide a scientific and systematic point of view to give policy makers and legislators the information they need to begin making changes to government regulations. Her group plans to continue their research on price comparisons and price-setting mechanisms among countries.

*The authors have disclosed, as possible conflicts of interest, past relationships with TailorMed, AstraZeneca, Novartis, TEVA Pharmaceuticals, Eli Lilly, MSD Oncology, Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Genomic Health.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Trajectories of Injectable Cancer Drug Costs After Launch in the United States. Published online October 10, 2017 in Journal of Clinical Oncology. First author Noa Gordon, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel.


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