The 2022-2023 Bioethics Public Seminar Series begins next month with a webinar from Center Professor Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, on “Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation.” This virtual event is free to attend and open to all individuals.
Metastatic cancer and costly precision medicines generate extremely complex problems of health care justice. Targeted cancer therapies yield only very marginal gains in life expectancy for most patients at very great cost, thereby threatening the just allocation of limited health care resources. Philosophic theories of justice cannot address adequately the “wicked” ethical problems associated with these targeted therapies. Following Rawls, Fleck argues for a political conception of health care justice, and a fair and inclusive process of democratic deliberation governed by public reason. The virtue of democratic deliberation is that citizens can fashion autonomously and publicly shared understandings to fairly address the complex problems of health care justice generated by precision medicine. “Wicked” problems can metastasize if rationing decisions are made invisibly. A fair and inclusive process of democratic deliberation can make these “wicked” problems visible, and subject, to fair public reason constraints. What constrained choices do you believe you would endorse with your fellow citizens as being “just enough”?
Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a professor in the Center for Bioethics and Social Justice and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University. Dr. Fleck’s interests focus on medical ethics, health care policy, priority-setting and rationing, and reproductive decision-making. He explores the role of community dialogue (rational democratic deliberation) in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies. More recently, he has completed a book-length manuscript that addresses a number of ethical and policy issues related to precision medicine, primarily in a cancer treatment context. He also completed another book that addresses several contemporary issues related to bioethics and religion from a Rawlsian public reason perspective.
What are we willing to accept as limits on access to very expensive marginally beneficial healthcare in our society?
Center Professor Leonard M. Fleck’s latest book, Precision Medicine and Distributive Justice: Wicked Problems for Democratic Deliberation, is now available from Oxford University Press. Fleck’s work as a philosopher and medical ethicist has focused on health care policy, and the role of community dialogue in addressing controversial issues of ethics and public policy related to emerging genetic technologies.
In an interview about this book, Fleck spoke of beginning democratic deliberation work around 1980 as part of a research project regarding changes to the Medicare program. He described the importance of involving members of the community in conversations about what values and considerations should shape the kinds of limits they would be willing to live with in terms of accessing needed healthcare. That project, centered in an Indiana community, shaped his work moving forward. The interview that follows explores the importance of democratic deliberation regarding the use of targeted cancer therapies.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Who is the ideal audience of this book?
The ideal audience would be a broad segment of the public that needs to be aware of the kinds of challenges, the ethical and public policy challenges, that are associated with precision medicine. Its high cost and its marginal benefit.
How would you broadly define precision medicine?
Typically, precision medicine is defined as providing the right drug at the right time and the right dose for the right medical problem. Right now, mostly what we’re talking about is cancer, that is, metastatic cancer. What we’re talking about are the molecular features of a metastatic cancer that a particular individual has. The drugs that are used to attack that cancer are drugs that are designed for the very, very, very specific molecular features of a particular cancer. Some of those features get to be defined in really sharp terms. Researchers and physicians no longer talk about a stomach cancer or a lung cancer—I mean they they’ll use those terms, but the recognition is that the nature of the cancer, in terms of what we’re going to try to do about it from a therapeutic perspective, that’s going to be determined by the molecular signature of that cancer.
What is democratic deliberation, and why is it important? How does it apply to this topic of precision medicine and healthcare justice?
I always start off with what I call the “Just Caring” problem. What does it mean to be a just and caring society when we have only limited resources—money—to meet virtually unlimited healthcare needs? And that’s a very, very broad problem that applies to all of healthcare, certainly in the United States today. With regard to cancer, the issue is that these targeted cancer therapies, and the so-called immunotherapies which are among the targeted cancer therapies, are extraordinarily costly. They typically apply to relatively small groups of patients, measurable in a few thousand rather than one hundred thousand. For the vast majority of these patients, receiving one of these very expensive drugs is only going to yield extra months of life, if that, as opposed to a lot of extra years.
So, if we had a $100,000 drug and this was going to give somebody three extra years of life, my guess is that most of us, democratic deliberators charged with determining how to spend our money on a whole range of healthcare interventions, including, of course, cancer, would say it’s a lot of money, but if we’re giving somebody three extra years, we ought to do that. And we ought to do that, we might say, because we think about, what are we spending now for purposes of giving a patient with HIV an extra year of life? A patient on a four-drug combination? The answer there would be $35,000 a year. And if we spend a $100,000 to give somebody three extra years of life, then that’s $33,000 a year. So it seems like if we’re spending money for the HIV positive patient at that level, we ought to be willing to spend that same amount of money to help cancer patients.
However, things are a lot more complicated than that simple example would suggest. So, in the case of cancer, one of the basic problems that I didn’t make perfectly clear in my earlier remarks is that even though I talked about a molecular feature of a cancer that is usually described as the driver of that metastatic cancer, and that is the target one of the targeted therapies, the fact of the matter is that in metastatic cancer there are going to typically be multiple drivers of a cancer. Most of them will be suppressed by the dominant driver. What happens in practice is that we’ve identified the dominant driver of the cancer, we give the individual a drug to kill that dominant driver, which it successfully does. And then another new driver emerges within that tumor, and then the tumor continues to grow, the cancer progresses. Now we may have another drug for that new driver, which will have roughly the same effect. It’ll kill that new driver and make room for yet another driver. But now, then, we’re providing to individuals several drugs in a row that have costs of $100,000 or $200,000 each. So, we’re spending a lot more money for a lot less good for these cancer patients. And so, the question for democratic deliberation is, what do we owe, under what particular circumstances, as a matter of what a just and caring society ought to be, to patients with metastatic cancer for whom there are these very expensive drugs that are only going to yield, for most patients, marginal benefit?
What I would ask an audience to imagine, when I’m working with an audience of individuals from the community, is that everybody in that room is probably very healthy. They have no idea what their future health vulnerabilities might be. Some people might say, well, we’ve got heart disease in the family, or some family history suggests cancer, but there’s still lots and lots of other health problems that you could have that could be deadly. The question is, if you don’t want to spend all your money on healthcare, and you don’t want to spend everybody else’s money on healthcare, then, collectively, what would you see as being reasonable investments of limited healthcare resources for addressing healthcare needs? Cancer needs, heart needs, Alzheimer’s disease needs, diabetic needs, psychiatric needs, needs associated with various kinds of disability. When you, in a thoughtful and objective way, try to consider the whole range of healthcare needs, where should we invest the limited dollars that we’re willing to provide? Right now, it’s 18% of our gross domestic product, roughly $4.1 trillion. Where are we willing to invest those dollars?
What led you to work that focuses on precision medicine? Was it natural from the other health policy work you have done, specifically work on allocating resources?
It was related both to allocating resources, because the cost of these drugs just leapt out at me, starting roughly in around 2010 or so. But the other thing was that I had been looking at a whole range of ethics and policy issues related to emerging genetic technologies. This was one of the newer elements associated with these emerging genetic technologies. This was a product of the Human Genome Project. Plus, the research that had been going on with regard to cancer, as researchers began to understand the extent to which cancer is this extraordinarily complex disease, that there’s not just sort of one or two or three drivers of these cancers. That there are different biological features of the cancer that are responsible for the cancer being so vigorous in multiplying. In brief, there’s that combination of the cost of these drugs and what that would do to distort the just allocation of health resources in our society, and the genetic features of these cancers that turned out to be so extraordinary genetically complex.
Something that strikes me, discussing these very expensive targeted therapies, is where does palliative care fit into the discussion of precision medicine?
For oncologists who are treating patients, for patients who have read something about precision medicine, for patients who have looked at some of the ads that are associated with precision medicine that have been on television, it’s very difficult to convince any of those patients that palliative care is something that they needed to give serious consideration to. Because it looked like these drugs could give them some very significant extensions of their life. And, of course, the fact of the matter is that there’s some percentage of patients who will get one or two or three extra years of life. There’s a teeny tiny percentage of patients who we call super responders, who might get seven, eight, ten extra years of life or more. At the moment we have no way of identifying before the fact how particular patients are going to respond to these drugs.
What happens is that patients imagine to themselves, I could be that person. Somebody is going to be a super responder, just like somebody ultimately wins that half a billion dollar lottery prize. How do I know it’s not me if I don’t buy a lottery ticket? How do I know it’s not me if I don’t take on this targeted cancer therapy? And if the first therapy doesn’t work, I heard that there’s a second and a third. And so as long as they seem to be doing something by way of controlling my cancer, of course I want that. I don’t want palliative care. So that’s sort of the psychological logic behind the reluctance of both patients and oncologists to recommend palliative care before it is just absolutely clear that nothing else is going to work.
What is one overall takeaway someone should get from this book? What is the question you want folks to continue thinking about?
What are we willing to accept as limits on access to very expensive marginally beneficial healthcare in our society? I want readers to think about the just caring problem, which is an extraordinarily complex problem. I’ve spent 50 years of my life thinking about this issue. And it’s only grown and become more complex over those 50 years, because of all the emerging life prolonging medical technologies that have come to be. Not just with regard to cancer, but with regard to heart disease, liver disease, lung disease, diabetes, and every other area of medicine that we care to name.
I’d like to add that ideally, ethically, I think we’re inclined to say, if we have a somewhat costly life prolonging care that’s effective, then everybody with the relevant need ought to have access to that if we are a just and caring society. If somebody has an inflamed appendix that is life threatening if they don’t receive the necessary surgery, then they ought to receive that surgery, whether they’re rich or poor, insured or uninsured. They ought not to be allowed to die. You will get, I think, very broad agreement in our society that that’s a just and reasonable kind of moral commitment we ought to make. It gets more difficult, though, to make that commitment when it comes to these extraordinarily expensive cancer drugs. And part of the problem is that in the United States probably no more than half of us are employed at places where we’re provided with very comprehensive health insurance, and where we’re not responsible for paying very much of the cost of our healthcare. But for the other half of the population who typically are working in lower wage jobs, who may be provided with some health insurance but it’s very marginal, it’s bare bones insurance. It’s the sort of insurance that requires that individuals pay 30 or 40% of the cost of these cancer drugs. And, of course, that’s impossible for individuals making $15, $20, $25, even $30 an hour. For a $150,000 drug, they cannot pay $30,000, and so they don’t get it. Nevertheless, they are paying through taxes, and through their insurance premiums, for others who would have access to these drugs. So that’s one of the fundamental inequities in our society, and the targeted cancer therapies make that inequity, I think, more visible. It doesn’t seem as if, as a society, we’re willing to address that challenge. However, that is one of the preeminent ethical challenges that must be addressed if we are to be a just and caring society.
Center Professor Leonard Fleck, PhD, has had two articles published so far this year. Online ahead of print is “Precision medicine and the fragmentation of solidarity (and justice)” in the European journal Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy. In the article Fleck “offer[s] multiple examples of how current and future dissemination of […] targeted cancer drugs threaten a commitment to solidarity.”
Fleck and co-author Leslie Francis, PhD, JD, were published in the most recent issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. Their article debates the question: “Should Whole Genome Sequencing be Publicly Funded for Everyone as a Matter of Healthcare Justice?”
In the February issue of Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, Center Director and Associate Professor Sean Valles, PhD, has a reply by the author in response to reviews of his 2018 book Philosophy of Population Health: Philosophy for a New Public Health Era. The book forum section of the issue includes three reviews of Valles’ book from Eric Mykhalovskiy, Quill R. Kukla, and Ross Upshur.
Last month at the 23rd Annual Conference of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH), Center Professor Leonard Fleck, PhD, presented on “Precision Health, Ethical Ambiguity: How Much Cancer Can We Afford to Prevent?” as part of a session on health care allocation and cost. Dr. Fleck has provided a summary of his presentation below.
“Precision medicine” and “precision health” seem to complement one another. We want an effective targeted cancer therapy for our metastatic cancer, but would rationally prefer to prevent the emergence of a life-threatening cancer–the goal of precision health. In a recent book, The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, Azra Raza, an oncologist, argues that we are wasting tens of billions of dollars annually on extraordinarily expensive cancer therapies that yield only marginal gains in life expectancy. Raza believes these resources (not resources from heart disease or anything else) should be redirected to destroying cancer in its earliest stages, those “first cells.”
A new liquid biopsy (GRAIL) can detect 50 different cancers in very early stages by examining cell-free DNA at a cost of $800. However, 200 million anxious U.S. adults would be candidates for this test annually at an aggregate cost of $160 billion. From the perspective of health care justice, who should pay for these tests? Who should be denied access to these tests at social expense? Should only individuals with a strong family history of cancer have a moral right to this test at social expense? That would cover only 10% of cancers diagnosed in any given year.
We might say individuals known to be at elevated risk for cancer should have these tests paid for as a social expense. That would include smokers and sun worshippers at risk for lung cancer and melanoma. Would non-smokers and responsible sunscreen appliers have just cause for a grievance, i.e., paying for the irresponsible?
Would justice or efficiency require foregoing $160 billion in metastatic cancer care to pay for this preventive effort? What would a “just enough” balancing of therapeutic objectives look like? The basic economic and ethical problem is that we would be paying $160 billion annually that we knew would yield negative results more than 99% of the time. This is not obviously either a wise or just use of social resources. Moreover, this situation calls attention to the “statistical lives vs. identifiable lives” problem.
The “statistical lives” are the lives we would hope to save from metastatic cancer with the liquid biopsy test. These are nameless and faceless lives, unlike the identifiable lives that are the patients with metastatic cancer who want access to the hyper-expensive targeted therapies that might extend their lives a few months, maybe an extra year or so. In contrast, the hope is that each statistical life saved would result in extra decades of life for that individual.
A key ethical question is whether statistical lives and identifiable lives in this situation are of equal moral weight. Or are the identifiable lives with metastatic cancer more “morally worthy” of social resources because they are suffering and near dying? Or, as Raza contends, are we ethically obligated to shift resources from metastatic cancer patients (who have been effectively treated up to this point) to preventive efforts associated with liquid biopsies hoping to save more lives and life years? How do you, my currently healthy readers, think we ought to decide?
Center Acting Director and Professor Dr. Leonard Fleck spoke earlier this month at a virtual symposium presented by University of Groningen in Groningen, Netherlands.
The event’s theme was “Barriers and future directions of personalized medicine: from the bench to the patients.” Dr. Fleck’s presentation was titled “Precision Medicine/Ethical Ambiguity: Rough Justice, Wicked Problems, fragmented Solidarity.” The symposium was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. As one of several keynote speakers, Dr. Fleck provided an ethicist perspective. Dr. Fleck has provided a summary of his presentation below.
Solidarity is a fundamental social value in many European countries, though its precise practical and theoretical meaning is disputed. In a health care context, solidarity means roughly equal access to effective health care for all. However, I argued that precision medicine represents a threat to solidarity. Precision medicine includes ninety targeted cancer therapies (mostly for metastatic cancer). The “targets” of these therapies are certain genetic features of a cancer, mutations responsible for “driving” that cancer’s expansion. These targeted therapies have prices of €100,000 (roughly 117,500 USD) to €150,000 (roughly 176,300 USD) annually or for a course of treatment. Our critical question: Must a commitment to solidarity mean that all these targeted cancer therapies are included in a benefit package guaranteed to all in the European Union, no matter the cost, no matter the degree of effectiveness? Such a commitment would imply that cancer was ethically special, rightfully commandeering unlimited resources. That in itself undermines solidarity. I offered multiple examples of how current and future dissemination of these drugs challenges a commitment to solidarity. An alternative is to fund more cancer prevention efforts. However, that too proves a threat to solidarity. Solidarity is too abstract a notion to address these challenges. We need instead the notion of “just solidarity.” We need to accept that we can only hope to achieve “rough justice” and “supple solidarity.” The precise practical meaning of these notions needs to be worked out through fair and inclusive processes of rational democratic deliberation, which is the real foundation of solidarity.
What kinds of challenges currently exist within precision medicine? This episode focuses specifically on targeted cancer therapies, featuring a discussion between Center Professor and Acting Director Dr. Len Fleck and College of Osteopathic Medicine student Stephanie Mackenzie. Dr. Fleck discusses ethics, economic, medical, and health policy issues related to these high-cost therapies. Additionally, he provides insight into how U.S. pricing models for these therapies compare with other countries.
This episode was produced and edited by Liz McDaniel in the Center for Ethics. Music: “While We Walk (2004)” by Antony Raijekov via Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. Full episode transcript available.
About: No Easy Answers in Bioethics is a podcast series from the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences in the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. Each month Center for Ethics faculty and their collaborators discuss their ongoing work and research across many areas of bioethics. Episodes are hosted by H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online.
Dr. Stanley Goldfarb is the former Associate Dean of Curriculum at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. In a recent Wall Street Journalopinion piece, “Take Two Aspirin and Call Me by My Pronouns,” he complained that curricula in medical schools “are increasingly focused on social justice rather than treating illness.” He goes on to say, “A new wave of educational specialists is increasingly influencing medical education. They emphasize ‘social justice’ that is related to health care only tangentially.” Really? Only tangentially?
Readers will recall Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan. She had discovered elevated lead levels in many of her pediatric patients. She could have “stayed in her lane,” provided chelation therapy, hoped for the best, and gone home for dinner. If this is what we would have taught her during her medical education, we would have been complicit in suborning a major injustice.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha did the necessary background research, discovered that public officials had switched the source of Flint’s drinking water to save money, which, in turn, resulted in lead being leached into the drinking water. She brought her case to the media and vigorously advocated (successfully) for correcting this health hazard. She did this for the sake of the children in Flint, many not yet born. This was not tangential to her role as a physician; this was integral and essential. This was a matter of social justice. This was part of her medical education in the College of Human Medicine.
The practice of medicine today is suffused with social justice challenges. As we explain to our first-year medical students, the clinic is not an island of “pure caring,” isolated from the injustices that are pervasive in our health care system and governing policies. Those injustices frequently seep into clinical practice through the hands of physicians who, no doubt, see themselves as just and caring practitioners. This may sound like hyperbole, but I ask you to consider the evidence.
For the past forty years the dominant demand in health policy has been for health care cost containment. I will remind the reader that last year in the United States we spent $3.65 trillion on health care, roughly 18% of our GDP, compared to 11% of GDP in most European nations. If we ask who is responsible for spending more than 70% of those dollars, the short answer is that physicians in the clinic are the responsible agents. Physicians decide whether a patient needs surgery, which drugs to prescribe, what diagnostic tests are necessary, how much home care is needed, and so on. Consequently, if a focal point is needed for controlling health care costs, it will be physicians.
Note that cost control can be a matter of justice or injustice. In either case, physicians will have to be mindful of the justice-relevant consequences of their diagnostic or therapeutic choices. In the 1990s a number of managed care plans used “at risk” reimbursement to elicit more cost-conscious physician clinical behavior. In some cases, as much as 30% of a physician’s income could be “at risk” if they ordered too many tests. They could also earn 30% bonuses if they were especially stingy in their use of tests. Patients knew nothing of these arrangements. Income risks and opportunities such as those could readily shape physician behavior in ways that were less than just. Whether physician judgment in these circumstances would be corrupted would depend upon whether in their medical education they had had the opportunity to reflect upon such future challenges (as opposed to thoughtlessly accepting such practices as “this is the way medicine is practiced today.”)
Putting physician income at risk to control costs related to patient care is crude and obvious. More problematic are the subtle and invisible ways in which physicians control costs justly or unjustly. For example, a patient demands an MRI to rule out brain cancer when a physician is medically certain these are tension headaches. But the physician authorizes the MRI because “insurance will pay.”
If thousands of physicians are indifferent to authorizing such unnecessary care, then the costs of health insurance to employers increase. For employers at the economic margins, that cost increase may mean dropping health insurance as a benefit, thereby adding those employees to the ranks of the uninsured. From the perspective of any individual physician, this is a very remote, invisible consequence of their decisions that creates an injustice. Medical students need to know this to practice medicine justly.
Other employers will change insurance coverage to reduce their costs. They will require their employees to accept insurance with $5000 front-end deductibles. Financially less well-off workers will deny themselves that unnecessary MRI (no injustice there), but they will also deny themselves medically necessary diagnostic procedures (sometimes with deadly consequences) by not even walking into a physician’s office. Why, physicians might ask, should they as physicians be responsible for those bad decisions by patients; there was nothing to diagnose in the examining room. But maybe there was something to diagnose in society? This is sounding a bit more like the situation in Flint. Non-physicians made cost control decisions but counted on physicians to see such decisions as “merely tangential” to the practice of medicine, nothing that should concern them.
Precision medicine has generated more than 90 FDA approved genetically-targeted cancer drugs with annual costs of more than $100,000. These drugs are used with patients with metastatic disease. The vast majority of these patients will gain no more than extra months of life from these drugs, not extra years (though clever media campaigns create a very different impression). For most workers, their health plan will require a 20-30% co-pay for these drugs, which is unaffordable for most workers. Financially well-off managers and executives will be able to afford those co-pays, which means that workers who could not afford the co-pays will have contributed through their premiums to subsidizing that other 70-80% for the well-off. Is that fair? Is that just?
Should physicians caring for these patients silently acquiesce to these insurance arrangements as “too tangential” to medical practice, too far removed from the clinic? Should we, as teachers of future physicians, also silently acquiesce so that more curricular time can be allocated to understanding the mechanisms of action of the next 90 FDA approved targeted cancer therapies? WWHAD: What Would Dr. Hanna-Attisha Do?
Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is Acting Director and Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.
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Center faculty members Dr. Len Fleck and Dr. Devan Stahl recently presented at the 20th annual American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH) conference, held October 18-21 in Anaheim, CA.
Dr. Fleck presented on “Parsimonious Precision Medicine: Wicked Problems.” The phrase “precision medicine” refers to targeted cancer therapies and immunotherapies that are aimed at defeating metastatic cancers with specific genetic signatures. There are more than ninety such FDA approved therapies, all of which have costs of more than $100,000 per year with some costing as much as $475,000 (CAR-T cell therapies). To date, none are curative. On the contrary, for the vast majority of patients gains in life expectancy are measurable in weeks or months, not years. These results suggest that for a just and caring society with limited resources to meet virtually unlimited health care needs, we ought to be more parsimonious in how we use these drugs and who we choose to treat.
The key point of the presentation was that whether we choose to be parsimonious in our use of targeted therapies or not, we will generate what the literature has come to describe as “wicked problems” (ethically, economically, and politically speaking). A “wicked” problem is essentially a problem for which every proposed solution (including doing nothing) generates even more problems that are equally, or more, challenging.
Dr. Stahl gave two panel presentations at ASBH this year. The first, “Theories of Identity and the Problem of Precedent Autonomy,” explored the ethical tensions that arise when patients in disordered states of consciousness appear to have current preferences that contradict their prior wishes. The panelists, including Dr. John Banja (Emory University) and Dr. Nancy Jecker (University of Washington), discussed the limits of philosophical analysis and theory regarding the status of precedent autonomy.
In her second presentation, Dr. Stahl was joined by Darian Goldin Stahl (Concordia University) and Dr. Jeffrey Bishop (Saint Louis University) to discuss their latest book Imaging and Imagining Illness, which explores the effect of medical imagining on patients and ways medical images can be transformed through art and philosophy.
Center Professor Len Fleck and Marleen Eijkholt, former Assistant Professor with the Center, recently presented at the 2018 International Bioethics Retreat, held in Paris, France on June 27-29. The conference has been sponsored by Cambridge University for the past eighteen years.
Dr. Fleck presented on “Personalized Medicine? Precision Medicine? What is Just Enough?” He addressed a question raised by Warwick Heale in an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics.
Heale was writing about the use of a quality-adjusted life year (QALY) cost-effectiveness methodology to make allocation decisions in health care. Heale identifies himself as a utilitarian. He generally wants to obtain the most medical good for a population group at the lowest cost. However, Heale notes that the use of this methodology is about averages for a population group. He wants to argue that if a population group cannot be treated cost-effectively with some very costly cancer drug, then it would be unjust to deny that drug to any individuals in that group whom we could identify before the fact who would benefit very significantly and cost-effectively from that drug. This has a certain intuitive moral reasonableness about it.
However, Fleck argued Heale’s proposal has some morally problematic aspects as well. He asked his audience to consider Laurel and Hardy. Both have the same medical problem; both would benefit from access to a certain costly drug. The quantity of the drug is administered on the basis of weight. It is clear that the drug is cost-effective for the average 70 kilogram person. Laurel weighs 57 kilograms. The drug is even more cost-effective for him. But Hardy weighs 90 kilograms; the drug would not be cost-effective if given to him. The logic of Heale’s position would require denying the drug to Hardy. This would strike most physicians (as well as most patients) as clearly unjust, especially if we were talking about a drug that was not absolutely scarce.
Heale wrote this paper to suggest a better approach to allocating money from the UK Conservative government’s Cancer Drug Fund, which was mostly without ethical moorings for several years. However, Fleck concluded that Heale’s proposal might effectively address the economic challenges faced by the Cancer Drug Fund while adding to the moral challenges intrinsic to the creation of the fund in the first place.
Dr. Eijkholt spoke on “Medicine’s Collusion with False Hope: False Hope Harm.” She proposed a new argument to think about interventions that are offered for consumer demands rather than for medical reasons: i.e. the False Hope Harm. She proposed that hope serves important functions in medicine. Hope can be “therapeutic” and important for patients to “self-identity as active agents.” However, in consumer medicine, like in much of the U.S. health care context, hope could also take on a different role. Scenarios like Jahi McMath and Charlie Gard make us wonder if hope can be harmful too. In fields like stem cell medicine or cancer treatment, where providers justify their support for medical interventions with “it will make them feel better,” we can also identify the risk of such harm. While one might argue that we should not deny anyone such hope in the face of emotionally vivid stories, Dr. Eijkholt argued that the profession has an obligation to avoid false hope harms.
At a recent health insurer conference, David Mitchell, president of Patients for Affordable Drugs, was quoted as saying, “The system is not working right, and it starts with drug companies setting the price. But everybody in the system is making more money on the higher retail price – PBMs (Pharmacy Benefit Managers), insurers, doctors administering drugs in the office … It’s exacerbated down the supply chain.” Mitchell has multiple myeloma with drug costs of $400,000 per year.
In 2001, imatinib (Gleevec®) made the cover of Time magazine. Imatinib is used to treat chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). Over 70% of patients treated with this drug were still alive after ten years. The cost of the drug in 2001 was $36,000 per year. By 2017, the cost of the drug had risen to $146,000. Nothing changed about the drug during that interval. Production costs were the same; no additional research was necessary. Patients, however, were economic captives. Greed works.
Human life is priceless. That was the theme of a pharmaceutical video ad from a couple years ago. The implicit theme was that if your friends and family were unwilling to pay $100,000 for a drug for an extra year of life, they were obviously heartless, unethical atheists. Recall the drug sofosbuvir for hepatitis C, the $1000 per pill drug. Gilead Sciences bought the drug for $11 billion from a small research company. Sales of the drug in year one came to $10.4 billion, thereby recouping the entire cost of its “research.” It cost $10 per pill to make the drug. Gilead could charge $100 per pill, which yields a profit of 900%. However, human life is priceless, so it is more ethical to make a profit of 9900%. Greed is clever.
More than 90 targeted cancer therapies have FDA approval with costs per year or per course of treatment from $100,000 to $250,000 or more. They treat metastatic cancer; none of them is curative, generally yielding gains in life expectancy measurable in months, not years. For example, palbociclib (Ibrance®) is used to treat hormone-receptor positive advanced breast cancer. In treatment-naïve patients the cost per Quality-Adjusted Life-Year (QALY) gained is $768,498, while in patients who failed earlier treatments the cost per QALY is $918,166. These are cost-effectiveness figures.
In the United States, an intervention is judged cost-effective below $100,000 per QALY. The National Institute for Health Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK initially refused to include palbociclib as a covered medication in the National Health Service, but reversed that decision after price concessions. Congress, however, is prevented by law from permitting the use of cost-effectiveness as a basis for excluding a drug from Medicare coverage. This law was a product of intense lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry in 2006 using as an “ethical argument” that no patient should be denied access to a safe and effective drug merely because of price. Medicare was also forbidden by law (same lobbying effort) from either dictating the price of a drug or using its 44 million covered lives to extract huge price discounts from pharmaceutical companies in the way European countries do. Greed is politically savvy.
Pharmaceutical companies claim massive research costs. The Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development claimed a successful cancer drug costs $2.6 billion. Dr. Jerry Avorn, faculty in the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at Harvard Medical School, has critically assessed that work and concluded a more honest number is about $650 million. These debates make it appear that enormous analytical accounting work goes into justifying the price of a drug. However, the Wall Street Journal (no apologist for left-wing anti-pharmaceutical rhetoric) reported how the price of Ibrance was initially set at $9,850 per month in 2015. A bunch of executives sat around a table, looked at what insurance companies were willing to pay for comparable cancer drugs, and set the price accordingly. Before that price was made public, these executives noted that the price of everolimus (Afinitor®) had just been raised by $1,300 per month ($14,350). They were concerned they had set the price too low. Greed fell short there.
Overall, however, greed is amply rewarded. Researchers Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody looked at ten cancer drugs with development costs of $9 billion. Those ten drugs have generated revenue of $67 billion thus far, with years remaining on their patents. Greed pays well.
Pharmaceutical companies have purchased expensive academic talent to justify the cost of their drugs, such as Precision Health Economics (PHE), founded by Tomas Philipson, Dana Goldman, and Darius Lakdawalla, all full professors at the University of Chicago or the University of Southern California. In one article, “The Long-Term Impact of Price Controls in Medicare Part D,” associates of PHE found that proposed price controls would reduce the life expectancy of the cohort born 1991-95 by two years. In addition, “We find that price controls would reduce lifetime welfare by $5.7 to $13.3 trillion for the US population born in 1949-2005.” (Moreno G et al.) Those are scary numbers, relative to which cost-effective numbers of hundreds of thousands of dollars for various cancer drugs are economic crumbs. PHE has been intensely criticized in one ProPublica essay. Greed is seductive.
It is hard to imagine Big Pharma being inundated with warm fuzzies from the general public. However, Big Pharma has millions of zealous adherents ready to mount the legislative barricades on their behalf. 83% of patient-advocacy organizations received funding from the pharmaceutical industry and 36% have an executive from one of these firms on their board. Efforts to control drug prices are denounced as rationing or as threats to further life-saving innovation. Further, these drug companies are perceived by patients as being generous and compassionate because they provide coupons worth thousands of dollars each to patients faced with high co-pays. If a patient needs a $65,000 drug and has an unaffordable co-pay of $15,000, it is good business sense to cover that $15,000 cost to obtain $50,000 from the insurance company for a drug costing $5000 to produce. Greed is compassionate (toward the insured).
Compassionate greed has become a political, economic, and ethical reality, perfectly congruent with the Gospel of Prosperity. Health and wealth will be yours if you have unshakeable faith in the innovative grace of Big Pharma and respect their God-given right to price drugs at heavenly prices. If you prefer not to pray at the altar of Big Pharma, consider sending a copy of this essay to your member of Congress.
Leonard M. Fleck, PhD, is a Professor in the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences and the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University.
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