Geographies in Depth

This film is causing the cost of cancer drugs in China to fall

Wang takes her medicine at the accommodation where some patients and their family members stay while seeking medical treatments in Beijing, China, June 23, 2016. Wang, who suffers from cervical cancer, came from Inner Mongolia to seek treatment at a specialist hospital in Beijing. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Cancer medications in China are often not covered by public health insurance. Image: REUTERS/Kim Kyung

Ni Dandan
Senior Reporter, Sixth Tone
Ni Dandan
Senior Reporter, Sixth Tone
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The black comedy “Dying to Survive” has again made the availability of cancer medication a hot topic across Chinese social media — and now, China’s National Medical Security Administration has said that it will step in to bring down the price of cancer drugs, state news agency Xinhua reported Sunday the 9th.

Two major factors make cancer drugs unaffordable for large numbers of patients in China: Many effective drugs are expensive foreign imports, and they often aren’t covered by the national health insurance scheme.

The government has already taken several steps over the last few years to make life-saving medication more affordable. In 2017, 15 cancer drugs were added to the catalog of medication covered by public health insurance, and beginning May 1 this year, China removed import tariffs on cancer drugs and reduced value-added tax on such drugs from 17 percent to 3 percent.

The next step, the administration said, is to bring down the price of drugs already in the catalog, given that the tax cuts will make it feasible for companies to further reduce prices.

In the meantime, the administration said it will continue adding to the list of covered medications after negotiating with pharmaceutical companies on pricing. “We’ll work to balance clinical needs from patients, appropriate profits for companies, and the capacity of the national medical insurance fund,” the administration stated.

In the film “Dying to Survive,” released last week, a greedy Swiss pharmaceutical company produces a leukemia drug called Glinic — a thinly veiled reference to Gleevec, a drug developed by Swiss company Novartis. In response to the film, a former senior manager at Novartis told the Southern Weekly newspaper that Gleevec was priced no higher in China than in the European or American markets, and that the company also offered a charitable program to grant Chinese patients greater access to the drug.

Gleevec first entered the Chinese market in 2002 at a cost of 23,500 yuan ($3,550) for a month’s supply of 120 tablets. From 2003, low-income patients could apply to Novartis to get the drugs for free, while other patients could apply for the company’s aid program, through which they would get nine months’ supply for free if they bought three months’ supply.

After a patient was detained in 2015 for smuggling cheaper copycat drugs from India in a high-profile case that inspired the recent film, the price of Gleevec was lowered to 21,000 yuan for a month’s worth of tablets. Then in February 2017, Gleevec was included in the country’s medical insurance catalog, meaning that public health funds would pay up to 80 percent of the cost. Patients now only need to pay 2,200 yuan out of their own pockets.

In 2017, individual spending accounted for 28.8 percent of health expenditure in China, compared with more than 40 percent before a wave of health care reforms in 2009.

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Geographies in DepthHealth and Healthcare SystemsEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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