Roche CEO lashes out at U.K.'s 'stupid' move to stop paying for a dozen-plus cancer meds

The U.K.'s special cancer drugs fund gave the heave-ho to a slate of treatments, including Roche's ($RHHBY) cutting-edge breast cancer treatment Kadcyla and Celgene's ($CELG) Abraxane for pancreatic cancer. Drugmakers are hopping mad, cancer treatment charities are despairing--and the fund and some public officials are on the defensive.

Roche CEO Severin Schwan

In uncharacteristically strong language, Roche CEO Severin Schwan called the decision "stupid" and "completely arbitrary." The decision to stop funding the products shows a short-sighted focus on the drugs' prices, rather than on their overall value to the health system, he said during a Tuesday briefing with reporters. Effective drugs can save the healthcare system money, and they can also get patients back to work faster, which helps the economy, he said.

"It's stupid from a cost point of view," Schwan said. "How the hell can you ignore all these benefits?" 

The Cancer Drugs Fund jettisoned 16 drugs for 25 individual indications, the Financial Times reports. The fund has been working on evaluating drugs all year, after busting its budget for two years running. The fund was created to cover meds rejected by the official cost-effectiveness watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.

Peter Clark, chairman of the fund, said the decision to delist the selected drugs was unavoidable given rising prices and increasing demand. "There is no escaping the fact that we face a difficult set of choices, but it is our duty to ensure we get maximum value from every penny available on behalf of patients," Clark said (as quoted by the FT), adding that the individual decisions were based on "rigorous, evidence-based clinical analysis."

The fund's news--and Schwan's pointed response--come amid an increasingly heated debate over the cost of newer drugs. As more and more treatments hit the market at previously unheard-of prices, payers are balking, even in the U.S., where drug coverage, particularly in cancer, had been less of an issue. Now, doctors are protesting the rising prices, and several groups have stepped in to offer ways to assess the effectiveness, safety and cost of cancer drugs.

Pharma has won points in the debate for a series of new-and-impressive treatments, but the industry's reputation has suffered in some quarters as the public continues to blame companies for the rising cost of their drugs.

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