Search Results for 'cancer'

American Patients Have Much, Much Greater Access to New Cancer Drugs Than Others Do

captureNew research by scholars at the University of Pittsburgh shows how much better access American patients have to new cancer medicines than their peers in other developed countries:

Of 45 anticancer drug indications approved in the United States between January 1, 2009, and December 31, 2013, 64% (29) were approved by the European Medicines Agency; 76% (34) were approved in Canada; and 71% (32) were approved in Australia between January 1, 2009, and June 30, 2014. The U.S. Medicare program covered all 45 drug indications; the United Kingdom covered 72% (21) of those approved in Europe— only 47% (21) of the drug indications covered by Medicare. Canada and France covered 33% (15) and 42% (19) of the drug indications covered by Medicare, respectively, and Australia was the most restrictive country, covering only 31% (14).

(Y. Zhang, et al., “Comparing the Approval and Coverage Decisions of New Oncology Drugs in the United States and Other Selected Countries,” Journal of Managed Care and Specialty Pharmacy, 2017 Feb;23(2):247-254.)

Misleading Rhetoric on Medicare Cancer Drug Payment Reform

man-in-wheelchairA few weeks ago, Medicare proposed a pilot program to test a new way to pay doctors who inject drugs. Cancer is the big kahuna, cost-wise, when it comes to injected drugs. Medicare payment policy leads to certain industry practices to profit from the status quo. When the status quo is threatened, the “preservatives” immediately form a defensive coalition to stop the change.

Although I do not endorse this precise reform, the campaign to roll it back has become irresponsible and misleading. Currently, physicians who inject drugs are paid by Medicare a margin of 6 percent on top of a reported price called the Average Sales Price (ASP). The concern is that the oncologists make more margin off an expensive drug than a less-expensive drug.

Ten Percent of Cancer Drug Spending Wasted

BMJA remarkable study published in the BMJ concludes that $1.8 billion of the $18 billion spent on the 20 most expensive cancer drugs in the U.S. is wasted due to cunning marketing by drug-makers. Chemotherapeutic doses are often adjusted by body weight. However, the drugs are shipped in vials containing doses appropriate to bigger people. Once opened, the drug that remains after an oncologist selects the does appropriate for a smaller or average-sized person has to be discarded.


The authors allege the drug-makers do this deliberately, to increase profits. Their proposed solution is that the Food and Drug Administration should regulate the size of vials!

There is a better way.

First, the FDA is not concerned with the cost of medicines. The proposed solution has nothing to do with safety or efficacy, so is not within the FDA’s purview.

Prostate Cancer Screening: Can the Government Get It Right?

Senior Man ThinkingProstate Specific Antigen (PSA) tests are back in the news, as they are one entry point for the government to start micromanaging how it pays doctors in Medicare. To set the stage:

  • Currently, Medicare pays for an annual PSA test for men 50 and older as “preventive care.”
  • However, Obamacare does not consider an annual PSA test for men 50 and over as “preventive care.”
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s current guidelines (updated in 2012), recommend against PSA tests.
  • PSA testing has declined significantly since the 2012 guidelines were updated.
  • The American Cancer Society favors PSA tests for men over 50, and as early as 40 for men with more than one first-degree relative diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Breast Cancer Screening Update

Women joggingYou may recall controversy circa 2009 and 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was passed, about whether women in their 40s would get “free” mammograms every year. In 2009, the US Preventive Services Task Force issued guidelines recommending annual mammograms starting at 50 years, not 40 (as previously recommended).

Needless to say, this upset many people. The American Cancer Society maintained its recommendation that preventive screening start at 40, as did the Mayo Clinic. Politicians took note, and made an exception in Obamacare for mammograms, such that the 2009 USPSTF revision was ignored when it came to Obamacare’s “free” preventive care.

The USPSTF looks ready to re-issue its guideline, which means “free” mammograms for women in their 40s will not be mandated by Obamacare. Avalere Health has published a study estimating that this could “eliminate guaranteed coverage” for 17 million women.

More Evidence We’re Winning the War on Cancer

This blog has previously presented evidence of America’s remarkable success in the war on cancer. The factors leading to success included lifestyle changes (especially quitting smoking) as well as improved diagnosis and treatment.

New research looks only at diagnosis and treatment, and finds stunning improvements since 1990:

Men and women ages 50 to 64, who were diagnosed in 2005 to 2009 with a variety of cancer types, were 39 to 68 percent more likely to be alive five years later, compared to people of the same age diagnosed in 1990 to 1994, researchers found.

“Pretty much all populations improved their cancer survival over time,” said Dr. Wei Zheng, the study’s senior author from Vanderbilt University in Nashville. (Andrew M. Seaman, Reuters)

Improved diagnosis and treatment result from good research and development in the medical-device and pharmaceutical industries, not government-imposed mandatory health insurance.

Under Obamacare, Will America Keep Winning the War on Cancer?

A similar version of this Health Alert was posted at Forbes.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) has just released its annual Cancer Facts and Figures. The announcement describes how successful the war on cancer has been:

Annual statistics reporting from the American Cancer Society shows the death rate from cancer in the US has fallen 22% from its peak in 1991. This translates to more than 1.5 million deaths from cancer that were avoided.

There are a number of explanations for this success. The most important appears to be the reduction in smoking in the population. Lung cancer is still very deadly. However, because fewer people are diagnosed, the death rate from lung cancer has dropped dramatically since the early 1990s for men and turned around for women starting about 2005.

As shown in the two graphs below, deaths from lung cancer had actually increased dramatically for men since the 1930s and for women since the 1960s, so a reduction is a welcome break in the trend. Still, almost one in three cancer deaths in the United States in 2015 will be due to smoking.



5 Myths about Cancer Care

PIC2In this month’s Health Affairs, leading health economists Dana P. Goldman and Tomas Philipson challenge five myths about cancer care. To the right we have an infographic that explains them very clearly.

The most economically interesting one is the fourth. This appears to challenge the notion that we should be skeptical about paying high prices for therapies that might buy only a short time of good life. (In health-economics, we use terms like Quality-Adjusted Life Year [QALY] and Disability-Adjusted Life Expectancy [DALE].)

The classic approach to these calculations was illustrated by Professor Christopher Conover in a recent article:

…[M]ost of the gains were concentrated in the 35-64 age group, which narrows the plausible range of what the average gain in life expectancy might be. Someone who is 60-64 is 7.3 times as likely to die in a given year as someone age 35-39. The reason this matters is that there are reasonably well-accepted rules of thumb about the value of what’s called a quality-adjusted life year (QALY).

Cost to Treat Cancer Drops 34 Percent When Physicians Package Price

An experiment by UnitedHealth Group tested bundled payments for cancer care. Another name for bundled payments that you might recognize is package pricing — where a vendor offers to group all costs together and lower the total price in an attempt to win a consumer’s patronage. Although common in every other industry where consumers buy services, package prices are quite rare in health care (except cosmetic surgery). Ordinarily, oncology doctors are given a fixed percentage markup on the cancer drugs they administer in their offices. For instance, a doctor administering an expensive drug would earn a proportionately larger fee than a doctor using a cheaper generic. UnitedHealth Group wondered if this perverse incentive translated into doctors using higher-priced medications rather than a cheaper drug that might be more effective.

The study found that over a 3-year period doctors who received bundled payments spent about one-third less treating cancer patients than if they had been paid a percentage of every oncology drug they used. Authors noted that while actual drug spending rose, total treatment costs were lower than expected. In other words, doctors weren’t skimping on drugs; they were choosing the most effective drug regardless of their commission.

This result should not be unexpected. What would be considered common sense or conventional wisdom in any other industry is considered novel in health care. The bottom line: incentives matter!

Does the U.S. Over Diagnose Cancer?

Ezra Klein challenges the notion that patients in the U.S. get better cancer treatment than patients in other developed countries. Klein was writing in response to the Commonwealth Fund’s comparison of health systems in eleven developed countries. As I noted previously, one problem with this survey is that there is no apparent relationship between ranking on the survey and health outcomes. Although the U.S. does poorly in the survey, it does well in health outcomes, especially cancer outcomes.

Or maybe not, according to Klein:

Most of the studies that highlight America’s skill in treating cancer do so by measuring survival rates  — that is to say, they measure how many people survive for a certain number of years after the cancer is diagnosed. So if a certain cancer kills 50 percent of people within five years, then the five-year survival rate is 50 percent.

The problem here is simple: survival rates don’t necessarily measure when people die. They also measure when they’re diagnosed — and sometimes, that’s all they measure.