Another NYT Nudge Toward End-of-Life Health Care Rationing?

The Times continues to obsess over the high costs of new health care treatments.

Times Watch has long suspected the Times to be softening the ground for the U.S. to adopt end-of-life health care rationing in the name of cost control (the paper is an editorial supporter of government-controlled universal health care), which would severely limit the use of such new and experimental drugs.

The latest slice of evidence for that premise appeared on the front of Saturday's Business Day section in a story by Andrew Pollack, "A Fortune To Fight Cancer - Cost of Drugs Is Soaring, Defying Reform."

What could have been a free-market oriented celebration of a life-extending health advance instead gets bogged down in the Times' actuarial obsession with costs and benefits - something the paper doesn't worry much about when discussing welfare or housing programs.

Here's the photo caption:

Preparing an anticancer drug. Many oncologists question the value of expensive anticancer drugs that can cost $30,000 a month but do not prolong life more than a few months.

Pollack made his priorities clear in the lead:

A newly approved chemotherapy drug will cost about $30,000 a month, a sign that the prices of cancer medicines are continuing to rise despite growing concern about health care costs.

The price of the new drug, called Folotyn, is at least triple that of other drugs that critics have said are too expensive for the benefits they offer to patients. The colon cancer drug Erbitux, for instance, costs $10,000 a month and the drug Avastin about $8,800 when used to treat lung cancer. The price of Folotyn "seems way higher than I heard of before," Robert L. Erwin, president of the Marti Nelson Cancer Foundation, a patient advocacy group. "I can't imagine there not being a backlash against the pricing."

Drug makers in general have been raising prices sharply in advance of the possible passage of health care overhaul legislation, according to various studies. But the price of cancer drugs has been an issue for several years.

Critics, including many oncologists, say that patients and the health system cannot afford to pay huge prices for drugs that, on average, provide only a few extra months of life at best.

And Folotyn has not even been shown to prolong lives - only to shrink tumors. The drug was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in late September as a treatment for peripheral T-cell lymphoma, a rare and usually aggressive blood cancer that strikes an estimated 5,600 Americans each year. It is available for sale, but its manufacturer, Allos Therapeutics, does not plan to start actively promoting it until January.

Allos defends the price, saying it made a significant investment to develop the first approved drug for this type of cancer.

Pollack did stumble onto the kind of free market argument typically absent from the paper's health care reporting: No "high" prices = no drugs.

Patient advocacy groups say that while they wish prices were lower, high prices might be needed to encourage companies to develop new drugs.

"It's a two-edged sword that we have to live with and deal with," said Louis J. DeGennaro, chief scientific officer of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, which has received donations from Allos and other companies. "A peripheral T-cell lymphoma patient," he said, "at first blush will see this therapy as a very good thing."