Can we foot the bill for pricey prostate-cancer meds?

Prostate cancer drugs are making great strides against the disease. But they're also posing a pocketbook problem, the New York Times reports. In the U.S., denying patients access to pricey cancer drugs just isn't an option. But how can Medicare, which covers the majority of prostate cancer patients, afford to pay? And how can patients foot the bill for the inevitable co-pays?

Just consider the cost of Provenge, Dendreon's novel new cancer therapy that uses a patient's own cells to personalize treatment for the disease. It's $93,000 for a course of treatment. Johnson & Johnson's new Zytiga drug costs $5,000 per month, and Sanofi's Jevtana runs $8,000 for three weeks of treatment. Plus, the NYT points out, more costly drugs are on their way to market.

"We could be talking easily $500,000 per patient or more over the course of therapy," Lazard analyst Joel Sendek told the newspaper, "which I don't think the system can afford, especially since 80 percent of the patients are on Medicare."

The government program has been reviewing Provenge--and is expected to decide to pay for it when used according to the label, rather than for off-label use--which is seen as a feint toward reining in costly drugs (although the agency has denied it). Private insurers are also sticking tightly to the labeling language, NYT found.

Drugmakers, however, are expecting a boon. Both Provenge and Zytiga are expected to be blockbusters, with $1 billion-plus in peak sales. And upcoming drugs may find their price tags higher than they might have been, based on the success of these latest meds. Algeta and Bayer, for instance, are considering pricing their yet-to-be-approved drug Alpharadin higher than the $25,000 initially expected, because Jevtana treatment runs $50,000. "The pricing environment is encouraging and getting better for us," CEO Andrew Kay said. We'll see how long that lasts.

- read the NYT story