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Government moves to lower prices of cancer treatments

Updated: May 18, 2018 China Daily Print

The cost of imported cancer drugs is expected to fall dramatically as a result of recent government measures, according to the National Health Commission.

On May 1, import tariffs were lifted on 103 of the 138 antineoplastic drugs - which can prevent or slow the growth of tumors - available on the Chinese market, and the value added tax levied on them was also reduced significantly.

Authorities will also adopt measures to lower costs, such as price negotiations with manufacturers, greater use of centralized government procurement and the inclusion of a wider range of antineoplastic drugs in the national healthcare insurance program, Zeng Yixin, vice-minister in charge of the commission, told a media briefing last month.

The moves are aimed at reducing the heavy financial burden that inadequate medical insurance cover can impose on some cancer patients, especially as the disease is a major cause of poverty in rural areas, the commission said.

A report published last month by the Cancer Hospital at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences showed that more than 3.8 million new cases are reported in China every year.

"Cancer has become the leading threat to people's lives and health because of a number of causes - including the aging population, industrialization and unhealthy lifestyles - and the incidence of the disease is rising," Zeng said.

"Although new, effective antineoplastic drugs are available, some patented drugs are extremely expensive, and that places a heavy financial burden on patients."

Widespread debate

According to Yu Jingjin, head of the drug administration at the National Health Commission, the high cost of drugs is a major concern for many cancer patients, even after reimbursement by medical care insurance programs.

As a result, some patients use e-commerce platforms to buy more-affordable generic versions of antineoplastic drugs produced overseas, despite several safety risks, the commission said.

The price issue became the subject of widespread public debate in 2014, when Lu Yong, a leukemia patient from Wuxi, Jiangsu province, was detained by police and charged with selling fake drugs.

Lu had actually bought generic antineoplastic drugs for himself and a number of fellow leukemia patients a decade earlier, in 2004, via a legal internet platform in India.

At the time, the imported patented treatment, called Gleevec and developed by the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, sold for about 24,000 yuan ($3,770) a box in China.

However, it was not included in medical care insurance programs, meaning patients would have to spend almost 300,000 yuan a year on the drug but would not be reimbursed.

Rather than pay an exorbitant price, Lu, a wealthy businessman, turned to an Indianmade generic version called Veenat, which sold for about 200 yuan a box.

Lu was eventually released in January 2015 after the prosecutors withdrew the charges following petitions from more than 300 people with leukemia who called for his release.

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