Doctors urge action on cancer drug costs

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WESTWOOD, Kan. — More than one hundred of the nation's top cancer doctors are calling for action to reduce the cost of cancer drugs for patients. They're encouraging patients to demand action, too.

Pat Koenig's granddaughter and daughter know she's a miracle—the Lenexa, Kansas, woman has lived with a chronic blood cancer for nearly 60 years.

"I've outlived a lot of the doctors that I've seen," said Koenig.

But a year ago, Koenig didn't think she'd live much longer. She needed a different medicine, one that's not approved for her rare cancer and, therefore, isn't covered by Medicare. The interferon shots cost $1,000 each.

"I couldn't pay a thousand every two weeks plus it could go up to every week," she said.

Koenig thought she would die.

"Yes, yes, that was the alternative," said Koenig.

It's a dilemma that cancer specialists say more patients face. Some new cancer drugs cost $120,000 a year, and even with insurance the out-of-pocket expense could be $30,000.

A group of top cancer doctors released its prescription for action on Thursday. They want Medicare to be allowed to negotiate drug prices, and they want importation of cancer drugs from other countries. They also call for legislation to prevent drug companies from delaying access to generic drugs, and they favor a review mechanism for new drugs to propose a fair price based on the value to patients and health care.

"If it can be accomplished with the drug companies, it'll be a wonderful thing, you know," said Koenig.

She found help at KU Cancer Center in getting her medicine from the drug company at no cost.

"This drug has saved my life," she said, hoping the company will provide it again next year.

The doctors' proposals are published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a trade group, says the proposals, if adopted, would stop innovation in its tracks and halt decades of progress in cancer care.