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Express Scripts says controlling cancer-drug costs a tough new focus

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(Reuters) — Pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts Holding Co, which has aggressively negotiated lower costs of new hepatitis C drugs, on Wednesday said a new “focus area” will be subduing costs of a growing wave of pricey biotech cancer drugs.

“This is going to be a much slower and much bigger effort over time than what you saw for hepatitis,” Steve Miller, chief medical officer of Express Scripts, told analysts during a conference call. “Cancer is different than any other disease, much more emotional.”

Miller said his company, the largest U.S. pharmacy benefit manager, plans incremental moves and new tools to control cancer-drug costs.

Express Scripts has been able to wrest price discounts of 40% or more from makers of costly new hepatitis C drugs that virtually guarantee a cure for the liver-destroying disease, including Gilead Sciences Inc.'s $1,000-a-pill Sovaldi and AbbVie's Viekira Pak.

Some new cancer drugs are even more expensive, perhaps most notably Amgen Inc.'s Blincyto treatment for a deadly form of leukemia that carries a $178,000 price tag for two courses of treatment. The drug was approved by U.S. regulators in December.

Not far behind in cost are a crop of recently approved immuno-oncology drugs, which work by harnessing the immune system. They include Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Yervoy treatment for melanoma, which commands about $120,000 for a complete course of four infusions, and Merck & Co.'s new Keytruda melanoma drug, which costs $150,000 for a year of treatment.

Express Scripts administers drug benefits for employers and health plans and also runs large mail order pharmacies.