Cancer docs try to rally public behind plan to fight drug prices

Cancer doctors at the famed Mayo Clinic have been up in arms about escalating prices of cancer drugs. Now they have recruited a bunch of colleagues and are trying to rile up the public in hopes of starting a patient-based grassroots movement.

The doctors hope such a movement would push for new laws to pressure the drug industry into thinking twice about cancer prices that now average more than $100,000 a year in the U.S. Their plan, signed by 118 cancer docs from around the world, was published on a Mayo Clinic website Thursday.

Some of the suggestions would be a tough sell in the market-driven U.S. healthcare system, like allowing cheaper drugs to be imported from Canada or creating a post-FDA drug approval review that would propose drug prices based on their value to patients.

The industry, in fact, immediately responded with its argument that finding cures takes high risks and requires high rewards. "The policy proposals they recommend would, if adopted, send a chilling signal to the marketplace that risk-taking will no longer be rewarded, stopping innovation in its tracks and halting decades of progress in cancer care," a statement from PhRMA said.

President Barack Obama

Still, other proposals from the group are already getting some traction, like allowing Medicare Part D to negotiate prices. President Obama recommended that as part of his budget proposals, and a recent study found a large majority of Americans support the idea. The manifesto also suggested federal legislation that would stop so-called pay for delay deals in which drugmakers pay generic producers to hold off on releasing cheaper copies. It called for laws that would make it harder for drugmakers to lengthen patent life. Both are suggestions that have had some support from different parts of the healthcare industry.

Cancer docs are not alone in being upset about rising drug prices. Congress has held hearings, and in the past year, PBMs have found that they can wield some of their own growing power to fight back. Gilead Sciences ($GILD) started discounting the prices on its hep C cure Sovaldi when Express Scripts ($ESRX) CMO Steve Miller touched off a pricing war last year by striking an exclusive deal with AbbVie ($ABBV) for its hep C treatment Viekira Pak. Miller has said he is prepared to run the same game plan on other drugs, including expensive cancer meds.

The doctors suggest that a public movement could "take a page from the history of AIDS advocacy strategies." They pointed out that that effort resulted in 35 affordable AIDS drugs being approved by the FDA within 20 years of the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic.

Of course a two-decade time frame does little for some cancer patients today who say that paying for treatment is leaving them near destitute. Stuart Chapin, a patient with stage four colon cancer, told NBC News that even with insurance he has had to come up with $60,000 in copays for his cancer meds over the past 8 years. His disease has made it impossible to work, and his family's finances are failing. "We've gone past circling the drain to clinging to the wreckage," Chapin said.

- here's the Mayo Clinic Proceedings posting
- get more from NBC News

Special Report: The top 10 most expensive drugs of 2013

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