New Zealand Labour Party

Pharmac's underfunding is costing Kiwi lives

It is easy to point the finger at “political interference” when it comes to the tough decisions Pharmac is increasingly having to make around funding life-saving healthcare for Kiwis.

But nothing screams ‘political interference’ like the underfunding of our most successful health model.

This week the Government tried to claim it could watch from the sidelines as the ground-breaking cancer drug Keytruda was deemed low-priority by Pharmac, despite it being fully funded in Australia and Great Britain. One in three patients is reported to have seen their melanoma tumours shrink, or disappear completely when treated by Keytruda. It is undoubtedly a miracle-cure for many, especially in New Zealand where our rates of skin cancer are so high.

As John Key dithered and delayed on whether he would fund the drug, hundreds of New Zealanders whose lives could be saved endured an agonising wait. For Labour, the decision was easy.

For the cost of John Key’s flag referendum, Kiwi lives would be extended or saved.

The issue that Pharmac is facing is that it does not have enough money to purchase these new cancer drugs from within its current budget. There are other cancer treatment drugs like Keytruda that offer meaningful clinical benefits that Pharmac will also not be able to afford. That’s all part of the $1.7billion this Government has effectively cut from health spending over the past seven years.

Pharmac this year asked for $11 million to maintain steady investment into new medicines. It received only $5 million. The agency and its decision makers are also hamstrung by its model – Pharmac locks itself into long-term funding of a drug once it is listed on the pharmaceutical schedule. This creates delays as long-term clinical results are verified. And when money is short, funding a new drug, long-term, without the ability to delist it if later results reveal it is less effective, becomes a risk too far.

There is an answer – and it is the kind of political interference that saves lives without long-term financial risk.

Allowing Pharmac to fund life-saving cancer treatments in the short term – as countries overseas currently do – will offer hope without the agency being tied to a long-term funding programme.

Labour is proposing a pool of money be set aside to fund these innovative medicines for a short period, say two years, where there is little alternative treatment available. Pharmac’s model would remain untouched, New Zealanders would be able to access new drugs as those in Australia and Great Britain currently do, and money would go where it matters most – into saving Kiwi lives.