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Prostate cancer treatment Provenge to be covered by Medicare, as is Avastin

Medicare said this week it will pay for two cancer treatments with hefty price tags -- and lingering questions: Avastin, the controversial drug shot down by an Food and Drug Administration panel on Wednesday for its use against advanced breast cancer, and Provenge, a treatment for advanced prostate cancer. 

Even though an FDA panel said that Avastin wasn’t safe or beneficial enough in clinical trials, doctors can still prescribe it and Medicare will continue to cover it, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid told Reuters. The drug costs about $8,000 per month.

And on Thursday, the agency announced it would begin to pay for the prostate cancer treatment Provenge, in which a patient’s white blood cells are used to target prostate cancer cells. The anti-cancer vaccine, approved last year, extends survival by about four months and costs $93,000 per patient.

In a statement about Provenge from the CMS:

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“We are optimistic that innovative strategies may improve the experience of care for our beneficiaries who have cancer,” said CMS Administrator Dr. Donald M. Berwick.  “CMS is dedicated to assuring that these patients can seek the treatments they need in accordance with their wishes.”

That drug, like Avastin, has vocal popular support, despite questions about its overall merits.

Medicare officials may have put any concerns they might have aside, not so the FDA panel.

As one Booster Shots blogger put it:

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“The decision — which could still be overruled but probably won’t be — may feel like a defeat for those who want to throw everything possible at breast cancer. But it’s also a reminder that in health policy, numbers carry more weight than hope. And in this case, the numbers don’t seem to be on Avastin’s side.” 

But, for now, Medicare patients can get both controversial drugs.

healthkey@tribune.com

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