Oncologists' pricing pushback mounts as docs snub costly me-too drugs

Major oncology groups, including the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), are working on tools to help size up the value that pricey new treatments provide. But in the meantime, some doctors are taking matters into their own hands.

Oncologists are increasingly avoiding prescribing meds that have little to no effect on cancers, Reuters reports. And if that practice catches on, it could mean trouble for drugmakers relying on the expensive therapies to drive their top lines.

"There are drugs that don't make much sense given how much they cost, given their small benefits," Peter Bach, director of Memorial Sloan Kettering's Center for Health Policy and Outcomes in New York, told the news service. "There are drugs that can cost up to $10,000 a month that provide, at the median, a few weeks or less than a month of additional life, but with substantial toxicity."

Doctors specifically pointed to meds such as Eli Lilly's ($LLY) Cyramza, which won its first FDA nod for stomach cancer but followed up with an approval in colon cancer--a field where Roche's ($RHHBY) Avastin and Sanofi's ($SNY) Zaltrap already compete. In that market, the Indianapolis drugmaker kept its price at double that of Avastin.

Oncologist Leonard Saltz

"In colon cancer, I don't know anyone who is using it," Leonard Saltz, chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, told Reuters, noting that Avastin, which extends colon cancer survival by about 1.4 months compared with solo chemo, is already "massively overused and massively overpriced."

Doctors have been growing increasingly vocal about their positions, too, and they've urged others to join the fight against high prices. Back in 2012, Sanofi halved the price of Zaltrap after three doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering announced in The New York Times that thanks to the high price, their hospital wouldn't be using it. And in July, doctors at the Mayo Clinic published a price-lowering plan and encouraged patients to call for reforms.

Meanwhile, ASCO, NCCN and others are refining their tools and frameworks to determine drugs' cost-effectiveness. In August, NCCN said its tool would compare therapies by their costs, benefits and side effects.

"A company that has an effective drug that's appropriately priced should welcome [the new assessments]," NCCN chief Dr. Robert Carlson told Reuters at the time. "If a drug is overpriced, "that's very important information for everybody."

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