In the northwest we are lucky indeed to be home to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance; the SCCA is a world class center that unites doctors from Fred Hutchinson Research Center, UW Medicine, and Seattle Children’s Hospital. But what if someone wanted to seek treatment or even just an opinion elsewhere in Seattle? As it turns out, there’s only one independent oncology group in Western Washington now.
It’s not just in the Northwest where independent oncology groups are disappearing. The Community Oncology Alliance, an advocacy group for independent practices, said that since 2008, 544 of 1,447 such groups were purchased by or entered contractual relationships with hospitals; another 313 closed and 395 reported they were in tough financial straits.
This is tied to reimbursement schedules for chemotherapy drugs: cancer centers, as opposed to private groups, participate in a federal program that lets them purchase these drugs for about half what private practice doctors pay. When a doctor is affiliated with a hospital or research center, though, patients end up paying, out of pocket, an average $134 more per dose for the most commonly used cancer drugs, according to a report by IMS Health, a health care information company. So while cancer centers pay less, they charge more.
Thus far health care economists say they have little data on how the costs and profits from selling chemotherapy drugs are affecting patient care. The cost of chemotherapy drugs has increased tremendously in the past decade, however, resulting in more out-of-pocket expenses for those even with comprehensive insurance coverage and tremendous expenses for those without coverage. With drug manufacturers promoting individual drugs through aggressive marketing techniques (as an example in this New York Times article, Celgene, in a recent email about its drug Abraxane, told one doctor who had bought 50 vials that he could get a rebate of $647.51 by buying 68 vials. If he bought 175 vials he’d get $1,831.93), the effects of this combined set of circumstances — increased cost of drugs, tiered reimbursements, fewer private practice alternatives — the best treatment options may not be the prevailing care options for some cancer patients.
While individual oncologists deny choosing treatments that provide them with the greatest profit, Dr. Kanti Rai, a cancer specialist at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Cancer Center, said it would be foolish to believe financial considerations never influence doctors’ choices of drugs. “Sometimes hidden in such choices — and many times not so hidden — are considerations of what also might be financially more profitable,” he said.
Dr. Peter Eisenberg, in private practice in Marin County in Northern California, summed it up: “The disgrace is that we have to treat people differently depending on how much money they’ve got.”