Andrew Little dines with drug company executives months before adopting Keytruda stance

David White / Stuff.co.nz

Andrew Little has confirmed a dinner took place between he and drug company representatives. Both he and Medicines NZ say Keytruda was not discussed. Health Minister Jonathan Coleman says Labour's promoting a dangerous precedent.

Drug company lobbyists were hosted at a special dinner by Labour leader Andrew Little, months before Labour announced its stance to override Pharmac and fund melanoma drug Keytruda. 

Labour confirmed the dinner took place, understood to have been in Labour's parliamentary offices, in September. 

Organised by Pharma lobbying group Medicines NZ, the dinner also included representatives from Keytruda makers Merck Sharp and Dohme, Pfizer, Roche, Healthcare Logistics and Sanofi. 

Labour health spokesperson Annette King, left, with Keytruda campaigner Leisa Renwick and her husband Wayne.
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Labour health spokesperson Annette King, left, with Keytruda campaigner Leisa Renwick and her husband Wayne.

Little said he recalled a dinner, but was unsure of the timing. 

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"I've certainly met with health insurers, I'm not quite sure whether drug companies were represented there."

His office clarified Little hosted both groups separately, late last year. 

But Little said neither meeting had any influence on Labour's current position, and there had "absolutely not" been any discussions around political donations from the drug companies. 

"And I don't get caught up in discussions about that, but I'm certainly not aware of any suggestions, hints at, offers of, contributions. It's not the basis of which we would arrive at the position we've arrived at." 

However the stance is a u-turn on its position during the widely-publicised Herceptin debate in 2008.

It's understood there is deep disquiet within Labour, over the issue. It's believed some MPs and wider party members are privately unhappy with the moves to interfere with Pharmac's purchasing model. 

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Deputy leader Annette King said that was not true. 

"Not one MP has raised concerns, not one. People understand there's no first line treatment for these patients."

During the Herceptin debate it was National in Opposition, vowing to fund a treatment extension for the breast cancer drug, while Labour - in Government - refused to override Pharmac's decision.

In that case, Pharmac's view was that a 9-week course was justified for those with HER2 breast cancer - but it rejected pressure for a 52-week course.

National won the 2008 election and instructed Pharmac to fund the extra Herceptin treatments, but studies since have failed to prove any greater benefit for a year of treatment over five weeks. 

Key has admitted his own Government's "hypocrisy" over it's stance on Herceptin in light of the Keytruda debate. 

Labour's latest position is an interim fund for new drugs on the market, to allow the drug to be funded for two years while new data is being generated on its efficacy. 

Little said the circumstances surrounding the public debates between Keytruda and Herceptin were "completely different". 

"Totally irrelevant. [There's] no connection - Herceptin was a drug that was available for nine weeks, the debate was whether it should be available for 12 months. 

"We're talking about a drug that is available in other countries, but not available at all in New Zealand. And whether Pharmac - having approved its use - should go ahead and approve its funding and make it available to New Zealanders." 

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman this morning signalled the Government would increase Pharmac's funding at the May budget, but it would not interfere in Pharmac's choices.

Two petitions of more than 54,000 signatures were presented to him on the steps of Parliament, by melanoma sufferer Leisa Renwick. 

Coleman said he was not surprised Labour appeared to be divided over the issue. 

"Labour are proposing a new precedent, whereby politicians decide to direct Pharmac to fund drugs on a temporary basis until evidence is available.

"It sets a dangerous precedent, and from what I'm hearing their caucus doesn't have a unified view on it." 

Pharmac was created in 1993 in response to soaring drug prices, and was set up intentionally to take decisions of funding drugs out of the hands of politicians. 

Medicines NZ chief executive Graeme Jarvis said such dinners we're typical and "above board". 

He said all language was kept "agnostic". 

"We tend not to speak about individual medicines at all," he said. 

"[Drug company heads, which make up the board] represent the innovative pharmaceutical sector in its entirety, and that's what we do. It's just to get the right budget to Pharmac, and that's really our key message here." 

Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that Ms Renwick had been forced to pay for most of the cost of the expensive drug out of her own pocket, but confirmed Merck Sharp and Dohme had paid for the cost of two of the treatments.  Ms Renwick has since clarified that all melanoma patients paying for Pembrolizumab in New Zealand are offered the third and fourth treatments, as well as the seventh and eighth treatments free under the drug company's cost share programme.  The programme is advertised on the Merck Sharp and Dohme web site and offered to private cancer clinics.  Ms Renwick also confirmed she made her payments for her treatment to her oncologist and clinic, not the drug company.   The earlier version of the story also indicated that flights down to Wellington for some patients who attended the presentation of the petition had also been covered by the drug company.  This was not correct.  The flights were covered by the patients themselves.  The error is regretted. 

 - Stuff

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