The cost of cancer care is often an insurmountable challenge for many patients, in particular patients with lung cancer. Many of whom will die because they cannot afford treatment. Health care costs must not compromise care.
Cost shouldn’t compromise care.
Over the past eight months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the nation, this idea has gained greater and greater currency. It’s an idea that transcends party divisions, an idea that many Americans see not as controversial but as common sense. In part, it’s why COVID-19 tests are offered free of charge around the country, why some states are waiving cost-sharing agreements for treatment and why there’s already talk of mandating that eventual vaccines won’t be provided at a profit.
These are necessary steps to prevent unnecessary American deaths. But they only go so far. That’s because, as we in the healthcare community know all too well, COVID-19 isn’t the only respiratory disease with costly and potentially lethal implications. Lung cancer is far and away the leading cause of cancer death in the country, and in many of these cases, the loss of life wasn’t inevitable. It was the preventable result of financial strain.
If you or someone you love has battled lung cancer, this likely isn’t a surprise. Over the past two decades, the average price of treatment has skyrocketed to exceed—by a margin of tens of thousands of dollars—the annual household incomes of most Americans. These costs cause lung cancer patients to declare bankruptcy at a higher rate than people with any other disease. They are also, quite literally, a cause of death—having forced patients to settle for subpar medicines and therapies or abandon treatment altogether.
These figures defy market logic. In just about any other industry you can name, as innovation advances and the efficiency of production increases, prices go down. Not so when it comes to lung cancer treatment, despite the fact that we know so much more about fighting the disease now than ever before.
Indeed, in recent years, precision medicine in oncology has gone from a pipe dream to a reality. Powerful, targeted therapeutics have transformed the once universally grim prognoses and life expectancies of lung cancer patients. From checkpoint inhibitors to mutation-specific drugs, these therapeutics are proving that a future can exist in which lung cancer is a chronic—but maybe not deadly—disease.
As long as treatment is unaffordable for most patients, though, that future is inaccessible.
This is Lung Cancer Awareness Month, but it shouldn’t be the only month of the year when we focus on this injustice and intensify our efforts to address it. We have to recommit ourselves to investing not just in the next generation of lung cancer therapies but in the next generation of patients with lung cancer.
Organizations like the GO2 Foundation and Lungevity and others are already doing this critical work, supporting underserved patient populations in many ways and fighting for them in the policy arena. However, the problems with pricing need to be tackled by the industry too. While politicians often talk about regulation as a cure-all, competition in the industry can have an even greater impact.
It won’t be easy. But if we harness the best of today’s minds and technologies to reduce the cost of drug discovery, reimagine the drug delivery chain and reform the pricing model, then lower-cost, novel alternatives to current drugs—drugs that might as well list “going broke” as a side effect—is possible. So, too, is a future where lung cancer is just a part of life, not a death sentence. A future where one of the big lessons of the pandemic—that cost shouldn’t compromise care—becomes a clarion call in the fight against lung cancer.
Sue Hager is Head, Patient Advocacy and Corporate Affairs for EQRx, an innovative biotech focused delivering high quality medicines at radically lower prices. Over the last decade, her advocacy efforts have focused on expanding access to personalized medicines in oncology.