Dying of lung cancer, Carolyn Hobbs tried a new biotechnology drug that produced an unanticipated side effect: acute sticker shock.
She was waiting for her second treatment in a hospital near Denver less than two years ago, when someone from the business office came calling. Her share, she was told, would be more than $18,000, because the drug wasn't insured for her type of cancer.
How to decide?
In her six decades, she had shared in a long marriage, raised three children, worked in a nursing home, painted as a hobby -- and wasn't ready to leave it all. But she also was a careful spender who sometimes returned new clothes to the store, deciding she didn't really need them.
Maybe this new drug, Erbitux, could extend her life by a small fraction, but she wouldn't be cured. "She was just very frugal, and she said it wasn't worth it," her husband Larry says.
So she refused the treatment.
More patients are confronting this wrenching decision, as the latest generation of pricier cancer drugs and heart implants stretches out the final months of advanced disease. Is the chance for several more months of life -- maybe a year or more, with luck -- precious enough to spend a small fortune? Extraordinary care for dying patients can make for inspiring medicine, but its extraordinary cost makes it an increasingly debated choice to promote public health.
"People still have an underlying belief that there's an infinite amount of resources that can be invested in healthcare," says Dr. Harlan M. Krumholz, a Yale University heart specialist who studies quality of care. "But I think we're coming to a realization that we're going to need to confront these issues explicitly."
Within the last decade, an array of expensive new treatments has given some patients their first real fighting chance against diseases once considered terminal.
These treatments include biotechnology drugs that home in on cancer and mechanical implants that help the heart pump blood. Some of these therapies, like the biotech drug Gleevec for leukemia or implanted defibrillators for some heart problems, can work wonders.
The trouble with many treatments, though, is that average patients gain only several more months of life, studies have found. A lucky few may survive for years.
Faced with a lethal disease, more than a third of Americans now would want "everything possible" done to save their lives, up from just over a fifth in 1990, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
"It's better to pay the money than sleeping with the worms," said Jake Rogers, 62, of Chicago, referring to his implanted left-ventricular assist device. His doctors implanted a second one in June, when his first wore out after 15 months.
Yet this kind of care costs several times more than the older treatments it supplements or replaces. A mechanical heart pump can cost more than $200,000, with hospital care. A last-resort cancer drug can cost up to $50,000 a year -- if patients survive that long -- but insurance would typically pick up at least two-thirds.
Robert Graham, 73, of East Brandywine, Pa., just chuckled when he heard the high price -- up to $250,000 -- of heart pumps like the one implanted in him last November. It was covered by insurance.
"I got to live a long time to be worth that!" he said. Yet the average patient in the best medical test so far lived less than nine more months.
Federal safety regulators determine only whether drugs or devices work, not how well they work for their prices. And Medicare, which insures about 80% of dying Americans, makes no acknowledged evaluation of cost in deciding what to cover. Its coverage umbrella sets a standard for private insurers.
"So far, we've given everything to everybody," says economist Lester Thurow of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Yet choices are being made every day, case by case.
Some insurers refuse to cover a treatment. Doctors send patients home to die, sometimes out of mercy. Some patients say enough is enough.
Dr. David H. Johnson, at Nashville's Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Tennessee, pitched Erbitux to his brother-in-law, a 57-year-old married truck driver with advanced colon cancer. But the drug has barely been proven to extend average survival at all.
The doctor remembers his brother-in-law refusing and saying: "Are you stupid? I'm not giving up my limited resources."
The drug's marketer, Bristol-Myers Squibb, did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Employers and insurers are discreetly controlling costs through premiums, deductibles, co-payments, caps, and even exclusions. Despite official denials, Medicare makes subtle cost evaluations, says Dr. William H. Maisel, a Boston heart specialist who chairs a federal committee on cardiac devices.