Drug Discount Program Vital to Cancer Patients
by Dr. Mary Margaret Kemeny
Jul 18, 2017 | 17093 views | 0 0 comments | 381 381 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Getting diagnosed with cancer is devastating. Being unable to afford expensive medications to fight it is worse. Luckily, many of my patients get the help they need from a federal program they’ve never heard of: the 340B drug pricing program.

Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry is working hard in Washington to gut it.

Congress created the program in 1992 with bipartisan support to allow health providers that serve large numbers of low-income patients to receive discounted medications from drug companies.

In turn, these safety-net providers supply low-cost or no-cost medicines to the community. The program also helps fund cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, dental and primary-care clinics.

Working oncologists know the newest generation of cancer drugs comes with eye-popping price tags. A course of Omacetaxine for leukemia costs $176,000 per year. Ibrutinib for lymphoma runs $165,000. These costs far exceed the ability of needy patients to pay.

At the Queens Cancer Center, the 340B program helps make oncology care possible for the underserved every day. We treat 2,700 patients annually, resulting in 20,000 individual medical visits. The center spends more than $3 million per year on cancer medications alone.

The savings we get through 340B allow us to stretch our resources to provide advanced imaging, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation for all our patients, regardless of their ability to pay.

Ninety-three percent of our patients are on Medicaid, Medicaid HMO, Medicare, Medicare HMO or self-pay. Many people don’t realize that government reimbursements often do not cover the full cost of hospital care.

Treating the poor is hugely expensive. Safety-net hospitals across America provide $24 billion in uncompensated care each year.

The 340B program is only available to public and non-profit health providers. Some private oncologists have blamed 340B unfairly for a raft of economic woes being visited on them by tectonic shifts in the American healthcare system.

Private practitioners of all disciplines are working more closely – or merging—with nearby hospitals because of changes in reimbursement and a strong trend toward managed care.

Private cancer doctors are not eligible for 340B pricing, as they treat few poor patients. Instead, that task falls to safety-net facilities like mine.

It is important to understand the program is not funded by taxpayers. Rather, it’s a subsidy from the pharmaceutical industry that can well afford it. Critics of the 340B program want to shrink it by limiting hospital and patient eligibility.

A bill to that effect is expected in Congress this year. The effort could lead to reduced services and medicine access for uninsured and underinsured patients across the nation.

The 340B program helps shield Queens Cancer Center’s poorest charges from soaring drug prices. It is a key part of caring for our most vulnerable oncology patients.

We need it now more than ever and Congress must protect it.

Mary Margaret Kemeny, MD, FACS is director of the Queens Cancer Center of Queens Hospital.

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