Israel Adds Cancer Treatment to Healthcare System

NEWS DESK | Israel developed the new CAR-T cancer treatment and now, it’s adding it to its list of treatments in its healthcare system. Our Ariel Levin-Waldman has the story.


Dr. Michal Besser, Head of Oncology at Sheba Medical Center in Israel’s central district, holds a bag with white fluid inside of it called CAR-T cells, believed to be one of the best answers to curing cancer.

‘CAR-T cell are immune cells — we take from the patient’s blood and we genetically modify them to be able to detect tumors and makes them more aggressive against tumors,’Besser explains.

CAR-T therapy is an Israeli invention, which only went into clinical trials in the past couple years. Worldwide trials have given it an 83 percent full remission rate — even among terminal cases.

‘They are very advanced cases. The product is only approved when at least two previous therapies have failed and it’s a metastatic disease,’ Besser says.

That lifesaving treatment comes at a very high cost. CAR-T therapy begins at about $370,000 and quickly rises to about $1 million — that’s the cost per patient. Those costs have put CAR-T outside of the reach of most patients, since most insurance companies balk at the cost and government health systems have been unable to bear the load.

But this year, the expensive treatment was added to Israel’s public coverage list.

 ‘[The future of medicine] will become very expensive. I expect governments to pay more money for healthcare,’ former Israel Ministry of Health Director General Arnon Afek claims.

Israel is paying more than ever. The 2019 budget allocated $125 million to cover pharmaceutical drugs and just over half — $70 million — was for cancer treatment itself. This has forced Israel to work on new ways to keep costs down.

‘We tell the drug companies help us include it: Cut down the drug prices so we can add more and, in many ways, it’s successful,’ Afek explains.

There is another factor involved in the Israeli government working with the drug companies.

‘The second method we use is risk sharing. For example, deciding we will only pay for successful treatment,’ Afek says.

There are limitation, however. Only two specific kinds of cancer are covered at the moment and only leukemia patients aged three to 25.

Health professionals say the country can treat a maximum of 100 patients a year this way, but it’s an important health milestone for Israel, regardless, and perhaps a model for pioneering such expensive treatments worldwide.

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