A cancer drug offers no obvious advantages over an alternative drug, but is also twice as expensive. Why? The writer looks at how drug companies determine prices:

“Because of medical insurance, co-pay reductions, and expanded access programs for the uninsured, relatively few Americans pay more than a few thousand dollars per year for even the most expensive drugs. The primary customers in the United States are not patients or even individual physicians, although physicians can drive demand for a drug; rather, the customers are the government (through Medicare and Medicaid) and private insurance companies. And since the insurer or government is picking up the check, companies can and do set prices that few individuals could pay. In the jargon of economics, the demand for therapeutic drugs is ‘price inelastic’: increasing the price doesn’t reduce how much the drugs are used. Prices are set and raised according to what the market will bear, and the parties who actually pay the drug companies will meet whatever price is charged for an effective drug to which there is no alternative. And so in determining the price for a drug, companies ask themselves questions that have next to nothing to do with the drugs’ costs. ‘It is not a science,’ the veteran drug maker and former Genzyme CEO Henri Termeer told me. ‘It is a feel.’”