September 6, 2017 News

The Atlantic: The Cancer Patient Taking On High Drug Prices

September 6

Sarah Zhang

David Mitchell, 66, has multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that is incurable but treatable. To stay alive, he takes $440,000 worth of drugs a year.

Mitchell counts himself as lucky. He has Medicare and can afford to buy Medicare Supplement Plan B, so his insurance covers his drugs. But not everyone is so fortunate, which is why instead of quietly retiring in his 60s, he founded a nonprofit to take on high drug prices. Patients for Affordable Drugs launched earlier this year, and it’s already making noise.

On August 29, for example, just one day before the Food and Drug Administration approved a groundbreaking new cancer therapy called Kymriah from the Swiss pharma company Novartis, Mitchell was in a meeting with several Novartis executives to talk about its price.

Mitchell did not know then that FDA approval was so imminent, but he did know that whenever Kymriah did get to market, it would be astronomically expensive. Kymriah is the first in the new class of therapies known as CAR-T, in which a patients’ own T cells are genetically engineered to go after cancer. Mitchell implored Novartis to price Kymriah fairly.

The next day, with FDA approval in hand, Novartis announced the new therapy would cost $475,000 per treatment.

I spoke to Mitchell last week about his meeting with Novartis and his reaction to Kymriah’s pricetag. Ben Wakana, the executive director of Patients for Affordable Drugs, also joined parts of our conversation below.

Their campaign, while relatively new, is an extremely polished one. Before working on Patients for Affordable Drugs, Mitchell was a partner at GMBB, a communications firm perhaps best known for cutting ads for Democrats, and Wakana was spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services. The nonprofit is funded with half a million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in addition to $75,000 of Mitchell’s own savings and another $75,000 they have since fundraised.

A transcript of our conversation, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.


Patients For Affordable Drugs is the only independent national patient organization focused exclusively on achieving policy changes to lower the price of prescription drugs.