Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Revlimid In The UK

I have been wondering how I would be faring in one of the socialist paradises possessing a single-payer health care system, such as the UK. Answer: It's not clear, to me.

Here I'm considering solely the position Revlimid occupies in the National Health Service's scheme of things. The determination about whether or not the NHS will pay for a particular therapy in particular circumstances for a particular class of patients is made by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). This is what certain former governors of Alaska are referring to when they talk about "death panels": inevitably, NICE will decide that a very expensive cancer drug that, statistically, extends the life of patients by only a few months is not "cost-effective", and that the NHS should not pay for said drug. Thus, some small minority of patients who would in fact have had their lives extended by many years had they gotten this drug will not get it, and will die very prematurely. Of course, on the other side of the coin, we have the problem of limited NHS resources: any money spent on said drug, mostly to very limited effect, cannot be spent on other things; if spent on these other things, conceivably many more people could have their lives extended or improved. This is what the term "cost-effective" is supposed to mean in the first place; but you see the problem, which is that the NHS must explicitly ration health care resources, and politically (morally?) it must do so on some basis that appears to be at least vaguely objective, which it calls "cost-effectiveness".

I was surprised to learn that the NHS does not negotiate drug prices; isn't this supposed to be one of the major advantages of single-payer systems? Instead, NICE must be approached by the provider of a proposed therapy with a pricing model under which the provider would be compensated by the NHS; NICE then makes a binary yes/no decision on the cost-effectiveness of the therapy, based on the proposed pricing model, and on whatever scientific evidence is available regarding the therapeutic efficacy of the therapy.

Until early 2009, NICE apparently was opposed to approving Revlimid for any purpose whatsoever. Then Celgene, the maker of Revlimid, offered a deal: if the NHS paid for the first two years of a patient's Revlimid treatments, Celgene would pick up the tab itself after that, for as long as the patient lasted. Based on this proposal, NICE reversed itself to some degree, approving Revlimid for multiple myeloma patients who had received two prior therapies. In other words, my usage of Revlimid as front-line therapy would not have been paid for by the NHS. Perhaps my current usage as maintenance therapy would pass muster, depending on exactly what is meant by "two prior therapies"; would induction therapy count as one therapy, and the stem cell transplant as a second? I'm not certain. I'm also not certain whether NICE considered Revlimid for front-line therapy and turned it down for that, or whether this usage was not even on the table.

And this reminds me of an anomaly in my own case: technically, Revlimid is not approved as a
front-line therapy by the FDA either; yet I got it for such, and the medical insurance company was just fine with that. The US rations health care resources as well, but no one is allowed to admit that this is both necessary and inevitable, and should be properly called by that name; it is currently carried out based on the seemingly arbitrary policies of whatever medical insurance provider one happens to have, or on the fact that one has none. News flash: We already have "death panels" de facto. But no one calls them NICE.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The "Chemo Parity" Issue

This Washington Post article discusses the "chemo parity" problem, which was not addressed by the recently-passed national health care legislation. The new oral chemotherapy drugs are very nice, but they also tend to be very expensive, and often are covered inadequately by drug plans, thus forcing patients back onto IV chemotherapy drugs, which are usually covered by medical plans, rather than by drug plans. And of course things get much uglier in those cases in which no IV drug is available, or the patient's disease has become IV drug-resistant.

There is a paragraph in here that talks about multiple myeloma patients who take Revlimid, which is described as being required "after an IV drug stops working". I took Revlimid last year as stem cell transplant induction therapy, and I'm taking it now as maintenance therapy; I have never been given an IV drug that "stopped working". Either the Post or its source for this part of this story is behind the curve on how Revlimid is currently being used in multiple myeloma cases.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Reluctant Teetotaler

As I believe I mentioned as far back as the very first post of this blog, I possess a cellarful of wine, with which I now maintain a troubled relationship. Of course, when I first became ill, the bottles nestled comfortably unmolested in their bunker for months on end. By Thanksgiving, I was able to have a glass or three with dinner, but almost immediately thereafter the stem cell transplant campaign began, and I once again had to forego the pleasures of the grape. But when I returned to Johns Hopkins in February for my 60-day follow-up, the oncologist gave me permission to take them up again, in moderation. So after a decent interval, I tried to resume, but the experiments have not gone very well. Something about alcoholic beverages upsets my stomach and causes me to feel nauseous. I have tried to gauge the minimum amount that causes these effects, but I am unable to get reliable results. So I am calling a halt to the trials for now.

I am assuming that this is caused by some interaction with one or more of my current roster of medications. For now, I am going to guess that I need more time to re-acclimate myself to the Revlimid, so I will try again in another month or so. If it turns out to be down to one of the antibiotic or anti-viral drugs then I have longer to wait. If it turns out that something has permanently changed, and I am no longer physically capable of tolerating the stuff, then you can just shoot me.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I'm Tired of Feeling Tired

My low-dose maintenance chemotherapy began on March 24. Two weeks into the first cycle, I'm getting used to Revlimid again, after not having taken any since sometime in November. The side effects are mild: a little tingling in the fingertips; some constipation and general gut disturbance; a bit of rash on the face. Thankfully, there are no muscle spasms, probably because dexamethasone is not part of the equation this time.

Now that the immediate existential threat has retreated (although it continues to lurk like a black cloud just over the horizon), I am reduced to focusing on what seems, by contrast, almost trivial. For example: The most frustrating aspect of my current situation is the unpredictable duration and intensity of fatigue and weakness. Some days I wake up, having slept comfortably through the night, and after performing my morning ablutions and having breakfast, feel the urge to return to bed. But if actively resisted, the feeling often simply dissipates. I can now walk two miles (cane-assisted) without stopping to rest en route, and often without even feeling the need to rest afterwards. In fact I often feel better at that point than when I began. I still crash for naps at odd times of the day, but not as often as before. On the other hand, anything involving lifting and carrying any weight, or just crouching to reach something low, seems to take an inordinate amount of energy. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it still seems to be the single most prominent factor standing between me and a feeling of normalcy (or as close to normalcy as I'm likely to get). I'm considering returning to physical therapy to work this problem.