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.

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