China includes 17 anti-cancer drugs in national health insurance list


China has included 17 life-saving anti-cancer drugs in its national health insurance system after negotiations on drastic cuts in their prices.

All of the drugs – 12 for treating solid tumors and the others for blood tumors – are considered clinically necessary, effective and urgently needed for patients suffering from non-small-cell lung carcinoma, renal cell carcinoma, colorectal cancer, melanoma, lymphoma and other types of cancer, according to a statement released by the country's State Medical Insurance Administration on Wednesday.

Most of the drugs are produced by international pharmaceutical giants such as Novartis, Pfizer and Merck and are far from patent expiration dates, the statement said.

The price of the 17 drugs dropped 56.7 percent on average compared to the retail price. And, they have been priced lower than the market prices in the neighboring countries and regions, remarkably reducing the economic burden of people battling cancer in China, it added.

Since June, the administration has been in negotiations with domestic and overseas pharmaceutical companies to lower prices and put more anti-cancer drugs on the list of medicines eligible for reimbursement.

"We have more power in price negotiations and achieved the goal of more quantity for lower price," Hu Jingling, head of the administration, said in an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).

"Including these anti-cancer drugs in national health insurance system will make them affordable for more patients and improve their treatment," Hu added.

The price of Erbitux, manufactured by Merck, was brought down from over 4,200 yuan (US$607) to 1,295 yuan (US$187), the lowest globally, Yuan Zezhi, a senior executive from Merck, told CCTV.

"It's quite remarkable to drop the price of foreign patented drugs to such an extent," said Shi Lichen, director of Dingchen Pharmaceutical Management Consulting. "This will benefit local residents."

Chinese premier Li Keqiang in July ordered regulators to speed up price cuts for anti-cancer drugs, something the government has been trying to do for years, after film Dying to Survive prompted a national debate about the country's healthcare system.

The film depicted a man who was jailed for smuggling in generic drugs from India for myelocytic leukaemia patients who could not afford a patented drug.

"Complaints from patients with cancer or other serious diseases about the high prices and short supply of imported drugs reflects the urgent need to cut prices and guarantee the supply of imported drugs," Li said, adding that "time is of the essence for the patients, so measures taken by the State Council should be implemented as soon as possible."

China's cancer rates have been soaring, driven by growing numbers of over-60s, heavy smoking among men and exposure to pollution.

The National Cancer Center said last year that there were 4.29 million new cases every year and 2.81 million deaths.

The government provides universal health insurance, but coverage is basic and many patients have to cover chronic illnesses like cancer out of their own pockets.

Many Chinese cancer patients have been importing and prepping their own drugs. Many have gone into debt paying for treatment.

Last year, government data showed that 44 percent of families in poverty had been impoverished by an illness in the family.

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