"We can do virtually anything," Vice President Joe Biden told the Cleveland crowd. "Your children are going to see more progress in the next 15 years than we've seen in the last 75 years."
With these words, Biden opened the Cleveland Clinic’s medical innovation summit on Monday. The progress he spoke of is in the fight against cancer, where the next generation of American cures is set to radically shift the medical landscape.
While today’s tendency is to get mired in pitched battles over drug prices, reformers should focus their efforts on how best to bring these new cures to market — and get them in the hands of patients.
Tomorrow’s cures will be fueled largely by “precision medicine,” advanced treatments that zero in on the unique medical profiles of an individual patient, promising longer lives, better health, and, ultimately, less expensive care.
The good news is that this medical revolution is within our grasp. Yet a widespread, ill-considered attack on pharmaceutical companies — critics of whom increasingly allege that drug manufacturers put a concern for corporate profits over the needs of those who require life-saving medicines — has endangered its progress.
A recent Kaiser Health Foundation poll found 77 percent of respondents think that drug costs are “unreasonable,” up from 72 percent just one year ago. And 78 percent favored limits on the amount companies can charge for high-cost medicines.
Critics’ indictment, however, badly misreads reality.
Truth be told, it’s hard to overstate how much society owes to the drug-makers who are allowing us to live longer, healthier, more productive lives.
It is perfectly understandable that Americans fret over the cost of prescription drugs. Being diagnosed with a devastating illness is traumatic in and of itself. Compound that stress with a financial shock and anyone would be overwhelmed.
The emotional resonance of that argument, however, all too often blinds critics to a more complex reality.
For one thing, the sky-high drug prices reported with such breathlessness by the media rarely reflect the actual costs to consumers. Moreover, the cost of treatment is rarely compared to the most relevant alternative — the cost of being sick.
Most importantly, the corresponding benefits of some of these drugs are truly breathtaking, as evidenced by dramatic breakthroughs in the treatments of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, metastatic melanoma, and leukemia.
We can reduce drug costs by streamlining the regulatory process and allowing market forces to do what they do best: lower prices through the power of competition.
Where drug prices still remain high, insurers and drug companies need to develop new payment contracts that allow patients to access potentially life-saving treatments without having to worry about jeopardizing their financial future.
Payers and innovators should share risk — and reduce financial burdens on patients — by linking a drug’s price to its ability to improve and extend lives, or lower other health care costs.
The ultimate question here is a simple one: how do we maximize the number of Americans who have access to potentially life-saving, and life-extending, treatments? This is the central question of not only the Cancer Moonshot, but of forward-looking legislation in Congress like 21st Century Cures Act, which would accelerate the pace of new and innovative treatments.
Today’s discussion has been dominated by voices calling for quick fixes like capping drug prices or limiting the profits of pharmaceutical companies. While we have no doubt that many of those proposals are well-intentioned, they would have the practical effect of killing the golden goose.
Given the massive costs of bringing a successful drug to market (including costs for testing all the drugs that never make it to consumers), it is implausible to imagine that we could have more innovation while making it less attractive or profitable for innovators to pursue new treatments.
We reject the notion that Americans have to choose between a system that can rapidly bring new cures to market and one in which those cures are affordable. Indeed, any system worth having has to do both.
Policymakers ought to embrace reforms, be it the prudent recommendations of the Moonshot or 21st Century Cures, that allow medical innovation to flourish while also pursuing new contracting and payment strategies that lower access barriers for patients.
Saving the lives of thousands more cancer patients is well within our grasp – if only worry less about who to blame, and more about how to find a real path to better cancer cures.