Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Challenges to Cancer Drug Pricing Featured in New York Magazine Cover Story

Pictured: Leonard Saltz & Peter Bach

Medical Oncologist Leonard Saltz and Epidemiologist Peter Bach

In October 2012, Memorial Sloan Kettering made national headlines when its decision not to include a newly approved cancer drug in the formulary was announced in a New York Times op-ed. The decision was considered unprecedented and bold, yet according to hospital officials, the reasoning behind it was based on a simple question: Is there a benefit to the patient?

The new colorectal cancer drug Zaltrap® proved to be no more effective in large clinical studies than a drug already in use, yet its cost was almost double. “Ignoring the cost of care,” the editorialists wrote, “is no longer tenable … when choosing treatments for a patient we have to consider the financial strains they may cause alongside the benefits they might deliver.”

One year later, the undoubtedly high and rising cost of cancer drugs continues to be top of mind as discussions regarding healthcare reform play on in the United States.

In the October 21 issue of New York Magazine, Leonard Saltz, Chief of the Gastrointestinal Service, and Peter B. Bach, an epidemiologist and Director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering, delve further into the issues in a feature cover story, The Cost of Living,” written by Stephen S. Hall.

In addition to detailing Memorial Sloan Kettering’s 2012 decision – a decision that helped to trigger a larger, national discussion – the article explores other examples of the drug-price debate.

Advocating for a Better System

When new drugs are introduced to the market, they are protected for a period of time by patents that give pharmaceutical companies the flexibility in setting a drug’s price. But as Dr. Bach published in 2009 and explained to New York Magazine, there is no such thing as fixed costs.                                 

Drug companies, he noted, often give undisclosed discounts to healthcare providers and insurance companies, so prices can “vary widely.” The system is structured so that drug companies can and will dictate costs. They “‘are responding in a logical way’ to an illogical system that, in terms of prices, has no ‘upper limits,’” he said.

Physicians and other experts are beginning to question this and other practices more widely, raising much-needed awareness for the need to change a system that rewards minor advances rather than aiming for cures.

“Whereas we had hoped that small, incremental gains would be a springboard to something bigger and more productive, I fear those small, incremental gains have become a business model,” said Dr. Saltz. “Right now, it is safer for a pharmaceutical company to strategize for large-scale clinical trials that look for small, incremental gains that will get a drug to market, than to swing for the fences and try for the big advance.”

Read the New York Magazine article in its entirety and access some of Dr. Bach’s research on the cost cancer drugs.


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This is a difficult problem for the patient. How much are we worth? I agree that the drug companies concern is profit first but who decides what benefit the patient gets? Insurance companies also think profit first. I do understand the issue of small achievements over large ones but we are an example of small progress that turned to large progress in terms of months to years. We have been denied treatment because of costs vs effectiveness by doctors primarily because of insurance objections. This should never happen! Patient first always. Go after the the right people- those who only consider profit as motivation. I thought "Orphan drugs" policy was over? I read your article in the New England Journal of Medicine -January 30, 2014 and it worries me. The combining of Inter-State medical facilities for one type care scares me as I worry that it too is about profit. We the patient suffer as we try to navigate the best possible treatment without having to second guess our physician's allegiance.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015 The Associated Press released a story that Memorial Sloan-Kettering was releasing a drug pricing tool online for cancer drugs. My wife has Mutual Mylo therefore I am interesting in using this tool but cannot find it on hour Web site. Is it available and how do I find it?
Thanks for tour help

Your efforts as well as your rationale bring tears of joy to me. With the littany of "investigations" that Congress has sponsored in recent years, isn't it amazing there has never been a Congressional Investigation of the entire drug industry ? Cancer drugs surely could be the instigator.

Not only is the price a problem, but there is the situation involving age and the attitude that all treatment must stop at a certain age, regardless of the patients desire and willingness to continue with a more difficult treatment. I never thought the "youth stigma" would invade cancer treatment.

Dear Susan, you may be interested to know that Memorial Sloan Kettering offers programs and care specifically focused on the needs of elderly cancer patients. We are committed to providing cancer patients aged 65 and older with the treatment, facilities, and support they need. To learn more, visit…. Thank you for your comment.