Health insurer Cigna has withdrawn plans to pay for Keytruda as a standalone chemo regimen after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the cancer drug for other use. “This new indication gives us additional tools to offer patients and their oncologists more options to help them fight a disease that is often deadly,” said Sean Harper, Cigna’s chief medical officer, in a statement.
This is the first widespread use of the experimental treatment for treating people with previously untreated kidney cancer. For many other patients, Keytruda is already being used as a stand-alone chemo regimen in which it is added to another drug, Yervoy, as well as to certain other chemo drugs.
Keytruda is an important cancer treatment. It is the only in a new class of chemotherapy drugs that works by essentially blocking a protein called PD-1. The FDA’s recommendation, in January, to approve Keytruda as a stand-alone chemo regimen raised the value of the drug’s initial approval as a treatment for skin cancer by 30 percent — the largest price increase ever given to a cancer drug, The New York Times reported. Keytruda is considered one of the blockbusters of pharmaceuticals, producing revenues of over $5 billion, according to The Economist.
In January, Cigna was negotiating with the drug company Merck, the maker of Keytruda, on how much it would pay for the new drug, doctors and data analysts said. Cigna has not reported its negotiations with Merck and the company is not listed among the largest drug companies in terms of revenue, according to MarketWatch.
“We have tremendous respect for Cigna and we stand ready to work with them in order to reach agreement on the right pathway forward for providing Keytruda to our patients with advanced kidney cancer,” Joseph T. Papa, Merck’s chief executive, said in a statement.
Cigna is a network provider in the U.S. health insurance business, and it is joining payers Anthem, UnitedHealthcare and Humana in kicking Keytruda out of its initial list of drugs covered through its insurance products.