Dr Chris Jackson's open letter to Pharmac: Please allow early access to life-saving drugs

Dr Chris Jackson, Medical Director of the Cancer Society of New Zealand.

Dr Chris Jackson, Medical Director of the Cancer Society of New Zealand.

Graeme Dore died from cancer last month. His oncologist, Dr Chris Jackson, is the medical director of the Cancer Society of New Zealand and has written an open letter to Pharmac, the government's drug-buying agency.

Although New Zealand has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, we have had no funded access to effective therapies, whereas Australia, the UK and Canada all have several drugs funded for melanoma.

Pharmac has been considering several applications for various melanoma drugs, and have been looking to secure the best commercial deal for New Zealand taxpayers.

However while they have been negotiating with companies to get a good deal, people have been missing out on treatment. Most people don't have the money to pay for these drugs themselves.

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Why isn't Keytruda available in New Zealand?

Pharmac has announced it will fund Opdivo from July 1, but have been in talks with manufacturers of melanoma drugs like this for over a year.

During this time, patients have waited without knowing if, or when, a decision will be made about funding.

During this time people have gone without, suffered, and many who could have benefited have died.

The Cancer Society believes that there should be an 'Early Access to Medicines Scheme' to allow temporary, early access to breakthrough new cancer drugs where there are genuinely no other treatments available.

This should be a ring-fenced funding pool to allow people to access new medicines so they don't miss out, while Pharmac negotiates a good price.

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We know, from the people that we support through their cancer treatment, that this would benefit hundreds – if not thousands of people in New Zealand.

For a drug to be funded, it would have to improve duration or quality of life by a set amount, and there should be a cost threshold for that.

If the drug wasn't good enough or it was too expensive, Pharmac wouldn't fund it in the early access scheme.

It would only apply in situations where there were no other effective treatment options, and would only apply if people's health would suffer gravely while they awaited a Pharmac decision.

The Cancer Society also think Pharmac need to give time-frames for their decisions.

Currently, both the UK and Canada have clear defined times that it takes to have a drug to be reviewed by the funders, and a decision reached.

That gives everyone certainty, and helps patients, families, and health care providers make better plans for the future.

Pharmac can take years to announce funding, or sometimes only a few weeks.

The lack of certainty does nothing to help people affected by cancer today and does not help providers plan for the arrival of new treatments.

Patients don't have time to "take a number and wait" for Pharmac to work through its committees.

This uncertainty is unfair on the patients, and their families.

Everyone knows that it takes time to make good decisions, but it should be clear how much time is needed, and it should stick to that.

 - Sunday Star Times


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