John Krahne received alarming news from his doctor last December. His brain tumors were stable, but his lung tumors had grown noticeably larger.
The doctor recommended a drug called Alecensa, which sells for more than $159,000 a year. Medicare would charge Krahne a $3,200 copay in December, then another $3,200 in January, as a new year of coverage kicked in.
For the first time since being diagnosed 10 years ago, Krahne, 65, decided to delay filling his prescription, hoping that his cancer wouldn’t take advantage of the lapse and wreak further havoc on his body.
With new cancer drugs commonly priced at $100,000 a year or more, Krahne’s story is becoming increasingly common. Hundreds of thousands of cancer patients are delaying care, cutting their pills in half or skipping drug treatment entirely, a Kaiser Health News examination shows.
One-quarter of all cancer patients chose not to fill a prescription due to cost, according to a 2013 study in The Oncologist. And about 20 percent filled only part of a prescription or took less than the prescribed amount. Given that more than 1.6 million Americans are likely to be diagnosed with cancer this year, that suggests 168,000 to 405,000 ration their own prescription use.
“Patients are being harmed daily” by high treatment costs, says Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, a leukemia specialist and professor at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center. “It’s causing more deaths than necessary.”
For instance, one third of Medicare patients who were expected to use Gleevec — a lifesaving leukemia medication that costs up to $146,000 a year — failed to fill prescriptions within six months of diagnosis, according to a December study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.