NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

U.S. Breast Cancer Drug Decision Marks Start Of "Death Panels"

August 17, 2010

America's health watchdog is considering revoking its approval of the drug Avastin for use on women with advanced breast cancer, leading to accusations that it will mark the start of "death panel" drug rationing.  A decision to rescind endorsement of the drug would reignite the highly charged debate over U.S. health care reform and how much the state should spend on new and expensive treatments, says the Telegraph (UK). 

Avastin, the world's best selling cancer drug, is primarily used to treat colon cancer and was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2008 for use on women with breast cancer that has spread: 

  • It costs $8,000 a month and is given to about 17,500 women in the United States a year.
  • The drug was initially approved after a study found that, by preventing blood flow to tumors, it extended the amount of time until the disease worsened by more than five months.
  • However, two new studies have shown that the drug may not even extend life by an extra month.  

The Food and Drug (FDA) advisory panel has now voted 12-1 to drop the endorsement for breast cancer treatment.  The panel unusually cited "effectiveness" grounds for the decision.  But it has been claimed that "cost effectiveness" was the real reason ahead of reforms in which the government will extend health insurance to the poorest. 

If the approval of the drug is revoked then U.S. insurers would be likely to stop paying for Avastin.  The Avastin recommendation led to revived allegations that President Barack Obama's overhaul of the U.S. health care system would mean many would be denied treatments currently available. 

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said the FDA decision amounted to rationing health care. 

"I shudder at the thought of a government panel assigning a value to a day of a person's life," he said.   "It is sickening to think that care would be withheld from a patient simply because their life is not deemed valuable enough.  I fear this is the beginning of a slippery slope leading to more and more rationing under the government takeover of health care that is being forced on the American people." 

Source: Nick Allen, "U.S. breast cancer drug decision 'marks start of death panels,' " Telegraph, August 17, 2010. 

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