Helping make the health care system work for you

FAQ: Why are cancer drugs getting more expensive?

kbrookes via Flickr Creative Commons

One patient's chemotherapy IV drips.

For several weeks, I've been working on a story about how patients navigate the high cost of cancer drugs. But before I finish that story, I want to take a step back and ask another question: Why are cancer drugs so expensive anyway?

How quickly have drug prices been rising?

In short: Prices have been rising really quickly.

The average price of new cancer drugs increased five- to 10-fold over 15 years, to more than $100,00 per year in 2012, according to a recent article in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

In 2014, all new cancer drugs approved by the FDA were priced above $120,000 per year of use.

How can drug prices rise this fast?

Dr. Vincent Rajkumar offers at least four reasons for why cancer drug prices have been increasing. He's a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and one of 118 cancer specialists who co-wrote the Mayo Clinic Proceedings article on the high cost of cancer drugs.


#PriceCheck: Yes, you can give birth for $250

Daniel via Flickr Creative Commons

About a month ago, we asked you to share what you paid for childbirth. Many of you shared your costs with our #PriceCheck project.

I've been combing through the data and something jumped out at me: While there's a wide variation in the bills that new parents paid, several of you paid very little for your labor and delivery.

Two moms I spoke with paid just $250 for their entire birth. That cost was written into their plan, so they knew what their bill would be before they ever got pregnant.

What's the secret, you ask? No, they're not giving birth in bargain basement hospitals. Rather, they get their health insurance through an HMO, a health maintenance organization. And setting a fixed price for childbirth is standard practice among HMOs. 


I've only had insurance coverage through a Preferred Provider Organization, or PPO, so these relatively low bills surprised me. But they didn't surprise Gerald Kominski, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.


Health savings accounts: Maybe for massage, but not for pot

I'm getting a bit of a reputation around the KPCC office: More and more, co-workers are seeing me as the health reporter who does a lot of crazy sports and occasionally gets hurt.

In January, I fell and hit my head on a rock while hiking and rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. I was treated in the emergency department and urgent care for that injury. About a week ago, I broke a bone in my foot while attempting to do an AcroYoga move. This time, I went to urgent care and saw an orthopedist. On top of that, I regularly visit the chiropractor, and now an acupuncturist, to deal with the aches and pains associated with these high-intensity activities.

I have a health plan with a high deductible that I haven’t yet met. So I’ve paid for all of this medical care using the debit card associated with my health savings account, or HSA.


A 'dramatic change:' More medical schools teach costs

Rebecca Plevin/KPCC

Isaiah Roggow, a third-year medical student at the UC Riverside, examines patient Becky Ketchum during the school's free clinic.

Traditionally, medical students haven't been taught how to talk with their patients about the costs of treatments and medications. The thinking was that doctors should offer their best advice to all patients, regardless of their insurance or ability to pay.

But in a huge departure from the past, the vast majority of the country's medical schools now integrate discussions of cost, value and effectiveness into their curricula.

It's "a dramatic change," says Dr. Janis Orlowski, chief health care officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges,  which helps medical schools develop curricula.

A recent Association survey finds that 129 of 140 responding medical schools said they offered a required course on the cost of health care during the 2013-2014 school year. Nearly 40 percent of the schools said they also present the issue in elective courses.


Bargain hunt for health care procedures, but use caution

laptop and stethoscope

jfcherry via Flickr Creative Commons

stethoscope lying on keyboard of a laptop

Shopping for things like hotel reservations is pretty easy these days.

There are a lot of websites that allow you to compare options by price and other factors. Some sites – like Priceline - even let you do the online version of haggling: You name the price you're willing to pay and the site matches you with a hotel willing to accept your bid.

Some entrepreneurs are now trying to adapt this approach to the health care field, where it's been notoriously difficult to shop around. It's a development that's being welcomed – with some caution – by people who advocate for transparency in the health care marketplace.

"This approach is the type of thing that the health care market needs," says Dr. Peter Ubel, a professor at Duke University. "With more and more people in the U.S. paying more and more out of pocket for their health care, they need to be more like regular consumers, where they're looking around for price and quality."