BOSTON — Cancer patients, brace yourselves. Many new drug treatments cost nearly $100,000 a year, sparking fresh debate about how much a few months more of life is worth.
The latest is Provenge, a first-of-a-kind therapy approved in April. It costs $93,000 and adds four months' survival, on average, for men with incurable prostate tumors. Bob Svensson is honest about why he got it: Insurance paid.
"I would not spend that money" because the benefit doesn't seem worth it, said Svensson, 80, a former corporate finance officer from Bedford, Mass.
His supplemental Medicare plan is paying while the government decides whether basic Medicare will cover Provenge and for whom. The tab for taxpayers could be huge — prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men. Most of those who have it will be eligible for Medicare, and Provenge will be an option for many late-stage cases. A meeting to consider Medicare coverage is set for Nov. 17.
"I don't know how they're going to deal with that kind of issue," said Svensson, who was treated at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in suburban Boston. "I feel very lucky."
For the past decade, new cancer-fighting drugs have been topping $5,000 a month. Only a few of these keep cancer in remission so long that they are, in effect, cures. For most people, the drugs may buy a few months or years. Insurers usually pay if Medicare pays. But some people have lifetime caps, and more people are uninsured because of job layoffs in the recession. The nation's new health care law eliminates these lifetime limits for plans that were issued or renewed Sept. 23 or later.
Celgene Corp.'s Revlimid pill for multiple myeloma, a type of blood cancer, can run as much as $10,000 a month; so can Genentech's Avastin for certain cancers. Now, the cost of Dendreon Corp.'s Provenge rockets into a new orbit.
Unlike drugs that people can try for a month or two and keep using only if they keep responding, Provenge is an all-or-nothing $93,000 gamble. It's a one-time treatment to train the immune system to fight prostate tumors, the first so-called cancer vaccine. Part of why it costs so much is that it's not a pill cranked out in a lab but a treatment that is individually prepared, using each patient's cells and a protein found on most prostate-cancer cells. It is expensive and time- consuming to make.
It's also in short supply, forcing the first rationing of a cancer drug since Taxol and Taxotere were approved 15 years ago. At the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, doctors plan a modified lottery to decide which of its 150 or so eligible patients will be among the two a month it can treat with Provenge. An insurance pre-check is part of the process to ensure they financially qualify for treatment.
"I'm fearful that this will become a drug for people with more resources and less available for people with less resources," said M.D. Anderson's prostate-cancer research chief, Dr. Christopher Logothetis.
For other patients on other drugs, money already is affecting care:
• Job losses have led some people to stop taking Gleevec, a $4,500-a-month drug by Novartis AG that keeps certain leukemias and stomach cancers in remission. Three such cases were recently described in the New England Journal of Medicine, and all those patients suffered relapses.
• Retirements are being delayed to preserve insurance coverage of cancer drugs. Holly Reid, 58, an accountant in Novato, Calif., hoped to retire early until she tried cutting back on Gleevec and her cancer recurred. "I'm convinced now I have to take this drug for the rest of my life" and will have to work until eligible for Medicare, she said.
• Lifetime caps on insurance benefits are hitting many patients, and laws are being pushed in dozens of states to get wider coverage of cancer drugs. In Quincy, Mass., 30-year-old grad student Thea Showstack testified for one such law after pharmacists said her first cancer prescription exceeded her student insurance limit.
"They said 'OK, that will be $1,900,' " she said. "I was absolutely panicked."
• Tens of thousands of people are seeking help from drug companies and charities that provide free medicines or cover co-pays for low-income patients. Genentech's aid to patients has risen in each of the past three years, and the company says nearly 85 percent of Americans earn less than $100,000, making them potentially eligible for help if no other programs such as Medicaid will pay.
• Doctors and insurers increasingly are doing the cruel math that many cancer patients want to avoid and questioning how much small improvements in survival are worth. A recent editorial in a medical journal asked whether the extra 11 weeks that Genentech's Herceptin buys for stomach-cancer patients justified the $21,500 cost.