Four drugs – Pfizer’s breast cancer treatment Ibrance, AstraZeneca Korea’s lung cancer therapy Tagrisso, MSD Korea’s immunotherapy Keytruda, and BMS Korea-Ono Pharma Korea’s immunotherapy Opdivo – had one thing in common this year: all four raised controversy in the process of gaining reimbursement.
These immunotherapies seemed like a dream come true for cancer patients who had limited therapy options. But annual treatment costs that soared past tens of thousands of dollars made the therapies out of reach for many. Although the immunotherapy developers asked for insurance coverage, they were criticized for suggesting too high a price. Notably, the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service pointed out Pfizer's price for breast cancer therapy Ibrance was too high in the appraisal process. AstraZeneca also dragged out negotiations with HIRA for its lung cancer therapy Tagrisso for calling a price notably higher than that of a competing drug, Hanmi’s Olita.
Meanwhile, patients grew angry over delays that hindered them from gaining access to these treatments at an affordable price. The government currently covers up to 95 percent of cancer treatments for these individuals once the drugs are insured. To demonstrate the negotiation delays, cancer patients, individually or in groups, took to the streets and signed petitions.
Government policies that blocked off-label prescription of immunotherapies, such as Keytruda and Opdivo, also stirred up controversy. The government, concerned about abuse and side effects of these drugs, denied terminal cancer patients who did not respond to existing therapies off-label prescriptions.
After many twists and turns, the health authorities and pharmaceuticals reached a middle ground, resulting in reimbursement for both Ibrance and Tagrisso. The government also outlined measures that allowed off-label prescriptions for a particular group of patients in response to protests.
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