Prime Minister John Key won't rule out funding Pharmac for melanoma drug
Prime Minister John Key won't rule out giving Pharmac more money to fund a "game changer" melanoma medicine.
The national drug purchaser has been criticised for deeming high-tech melanoma drug Keytruda - described by some as a "game changer" - a low priority as it goes through the lengthy application process for public funding.
Pharmac has said there is a "low evidence base" for its effectiveness and a lack of certainty about its long-term benefits given its high cost.
Key told TV3's Paul Henry he understood how significant the issue was to melanoma sufferers and their families, but overruling Pharmac could set an unwelcome precedent for future medicines applying for funding.
"We desperately want to save them [melanoma sufferers]; there are lots of drugs and lots of them are expensive.
"If that's how we make the decision, then by next year, because of the wonders of modern science, there'll be another drug that comes along...that's the balancing act here."
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Key said the Government was spending $800 million a year on drugs, an increase of $150 million on when it first came in.
While it was "very difficult on efficacy grounds" for Pharmac to fund the drug, Key would not rule out stepping in and providing more funding for Keytruda.
"We take this stuff very seriously, we are putting in more money - I'm not ruling it out and I'm not ruling out going over these guys, but there's potentially a way to go on this one."
Keytruda, also known as Pembrolizumab, is used to treat terminal melanoma – a disease which kills about 300 Kiwis every year.
New Zealanders have the highest rates of melanoma in the world along with Australia.
While Keytruda is publicly funded in Australia and the UK, New Zealanders are forced to pay full-price, sometimes more than $300,000 for a full course of treatment, prompting Kiwi doctors to ask people if they had access to overseas treatment schemes.
Labour leader Andrew Little said he was in favour of an early-access funding scheme for drugs like Keytruda, similar to the United Kingdom.
Little, who has had his own battles with cancer, said he knew the "fear that comes from hearing that diagnosis".
"It must be devastating for melanoma sufferers to know there's a drug out there that could potentially save their lives, but that they can't get it in New Zealand."
Little said clinical trials showed Keytruda was effective for at least one in three patients.
"John Key needs to step in and do the right thing. It's not about picking winners and losers, it's about saving Kiwi lives."