The rising cost of cancer

Associate Professor Michael Sorich

Pressure is mounting on the Federal Government to fund a growing number of high-cost cancer medications, a Flinders University researcher says.

According to Associate Professor of Pharmacology Michael Sorich, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme – the arm of the government which subsidises medications – is facing a challenging future as cancer drugs become more expensive.

Associate Professor Sorich said the cause of the price hike was not entirely clear, although possible factors include the increasing costs of research and development, as well as a trend towards targeting drugs at a smaller group of patients – a concept known as personalised medicine.

“The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) is being asked to subsidise more drugs costing in the order of tens of thousands of dollars per patient,” Associate Professor Sorich said.

“Those requests were quite rare in the past but they’re becoming more common, partly because of a change in the way cancer drugs are delivered,” he said.

“We’re recognising that cancers have subtypes – for example we don’t just treat breast cancer anymore, there are many types of breast cancers and some respond better to different drugs so we treat the patient with the drug that’s best for them.

“This means we tend to treat smaller groups rather than populations.”

However, Associate Professor Sorich said he believed the price charged by pharmaceutical companies was not dependent on development or production costs: “It’s more likely to be dependent on the price the company believes individuals and healthcare systems are willing to pay”.

Associate Professor Sorich will discuss the challenges that emerging cancer therapies pose to the current PBS system at the Cancer Insights Lecture Series, run by the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer, on Tuesday (September 24).

The seminar will feature a keynote address by UniSA Emeritus Professor Lloyd Sansom, former chair of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, who will lead the discussion with an overview of the PBS, how and why it works and the increasing burden of high-cost cancer drugs.

Associate Professor Sorich said ensuring affordable patient access to high-cost medications “in a manner that is sustainable for the healthcare system” is a challenge being faced by all countries, not just Australia.

“Different healthcare systems have different approaches for funding and negotiating the price of new drugs and innovative approaches may be required.

“While people are working towards alternative options there’s definitely not a clear-cut way forward.”

He said the aim of the seminar was to increase public awareness about the challenges facing the PBS in the future.

“We don’t want to scare people into thinking their medications won’t be subsidised anymore because once they’re on the PBS they’re rarely taken off.

“It’s more a question of whether new high-cost cancer drugs will be put on the PBS so individual patients can access them, and how we, as a society, will be able to afford them.”

The Cost of Cancer Medicines will be held at the Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer on September 24 from 6pm. RSVP via email or call 8204 5594.

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