Our study showed that, after enlistment on the PRDL, the average HPV per month and the average HPS per month of the anticancer medications selected in this study increased significantly in Zhejiang province. Furthermore, the average daily cost of these newly listed anticancer medications declined shortly after the enlistment and remained stabilized overtime. These findings suggested that the PRDL policy was successful at encouraging the use of anticancer medications, promoting the access and improving patients’ affordability.
The time of the PRDL policy implementation in this study was set as February 2015 when 6 TAMs were newly enlisted on the PRDL in Zhejiang province. The average of the HPV per month for the 6 listed TAMs increased significantly after the enlistment and throughout the study period. This shows that the provincial reimbursement scheme was an effective way to promote the use of anticancer medications, which is consistent with previous studies. (15, 25, 26) This is especially evident when comparing gefitinib (listed TAM) and erlotinib (unlisted TAM) as shown in this study. Both of these medications were first-line TAMs for non-small-cell lung cancer patients with somatic EGFR mutations in China. (27) Erlotinib was also a second-line TAM after failure of at least one prior chemotherapy regimen. However, we found that the HPV per month and the HPS per month of gefitinib increased significantly after enlistment of the PRDL while there was no change for erlotinib. Such differences suggest that the tertiary hospitals had a higher tendency to purchase medications listed in the provincial reimbursement scheme emphasizing the positive role that the PRDL policy may play in encouraging the use of anticancer medications.
TAMs have been the focus of cancer drug development over the past two decades, (28, 29) which meanwhile have raised major concerns over their affordability due to skyrocketing prices. (30) In this study, we found that the daily cost of the 6 expensive TAMs successfully decreased after enlistment, which reflected the improvement in patients’ affordability. According to the reimbursement policy, when patients were prescribed with listed medications, after a deductible of CNY 20000 (USD 3077), the provincial reimbursement scheme would help pay a pre-defined portion of the total amount of patient’s payment (e.g. 70% in Hangzhou, the capital city of Zhejiang province (31) ), and the patients would have to bear the remaining cost (e.g. 30% in Hangzhou). Listing of the medications on the reimbursement list can decrease patients’ out-of-pocket spending. The policy relieved the economic burden of patients and improved access to expensive anticancer medications in Zhejiang province.
We have also identified 2 important factors when evaluating the implementation of the PDRL policy in this study: the availability of generic medicines and the time lag between policy issuance and implementation. At the individual level, not every anticancer medication showed significant increase in the HPV per month and the HPS per month following reimbursement inclusion. Imatinib (listed medication) included in our study was the branded originator which showed no significant change in terms of the HPV per month nor the HPS per month. Since patent protection of imatinib was expired before February 2015, generic of imatinib was already available locally marketed at a lower price compared to its originator. The availability of the generic medications would impact the use and cost of anticancer medications in China. (18, 32) Patients taking generic imatinib might not turn to branded imatinib even when the originator became listed on the PDRL.
Our study also found that, while the average HPV per month and the average HPS per month of the newly listed TAMs increased immediately after enlistment in February 2015, the average daily cost of these TAMs only declined after 2 months in April 2015. Each province had a medicine tender bidding center to select medicine manufacturers and to determine medicine prices for government-run healthcare institutions. (33) In Zhejiang, the HRSS department issued the enlistment announcement on February 4, but the prices of listed medications on medicine tender bidding center were only updated in April 2015 showing a 2-month lag period. (34) Although such delay due to policy coordination among departments may be inevitable, improved coordination and cooperation between related sectors were vital to achieve “health in all policies” in the most timely manner. (35) More effective mechanisms are needed to improve intersectoral coordination and shorten implementation delay between departments.
There were several limitations in this study. First, only patients from 22 of more than 130 tertiary hospitals (4) of Zhejiang province were included in our study, the findings of which were not able to fully reflect the monthly medication consumption and spending of all hospitals in the province; Second, there were related Patient Assistance Programs (PAPs) existing in China, like Iressa Means–Tested Drug Donation(36) for gefitinib. Low income patients who could not afford continuous treatment could receive free Iressa after paying for the first several courses of treatment. The influence of programs alike was not taken into account in our analysis. However, the number of patients who participate in PAPs was limited and almost 70% of medication sales in China occurred in hospitals. (37) Third, the data we used was from hospital procurement records, which did not directly reflect the access to medications at patient level. Further study is needed to evaluate patients’ access to TAMs using claim data or prescription data. Patients in secondary hospitals should also be enrolled.