August 13, 2008

Twin Blows for Cancer Patients


Nelson breast cancer sufferers have been dealt a double blow, with a decision not to increase funding for the drug Herceptin, and a discovery by the local health board that it was over- funding treatment.

Government drug-buying agency Pharmac yesterday announced it would not increase funding for Herceptin - which is used to treat the aggressive Her2 positive form of breast cancer - from a nine- week course to a one-year course.

In April, the High Court ordered Pharmac to reconsider increasing funding - a move that would bring New Zealand into line with most Western countries.

However, Pharmac chief executive Matthew Brougham yesterday said a scientific review had failed to find any benefits from the longer treatment.

The application for a review, which had been filed by drug company Roche, failed because the year-long course was not clinically efficient or cost-effective, and was shown to increase toxicity.

Pharmac said it received about 300 submissions, most of which supported the Government funding the 12-month treatment, which cost $80,000.

Pharmac's controversial decision could be reversed if National is elected to power later this year, with Nelson MP Nick Smith today confirming that his party would fund the full year-long course.

Dr Smith was a supporter of a 24,464-strong petition - of which Hope breast cancer sufferer Mandy Carter was the chief petitioner - that called on the Government to fund 12 months.

Pharmac's decision was a huge disappointment to women like Mrs Carter but reflected the Government's funding priorities, Dr Smith said.

The number of health bureaucrats had risen by 3000 over the past nine years while government drug spending increases had been marginal, he said.

Mrs Carter, who successfully completed the 12-month treatment five weeks ago, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the decision.

Motueka mother of two Donna Sladen, who finished the 12-month course in April, said she was "disappointed and disgusted" by the decision.

Until recently, the Nelson Marlborough District Health Board funded some aspects of treatment, including specialist time and scans, meaning patients had to cover the cost of the drug only.

However, health board portfolio manager Mark Garisch confirmed that it was discovered a few months ago that the board had been wrongly supplying consultant time and the use of facilities for what was essentially a private treatment, and therefore not funded by the Ministry of Health. The board has now cut the funding for facilities and specialist time.

Health Minister David Cunliffe said he had no legal power to intervene in the Pharmac decision but had been assured that it was a well thought-out decision. It remained open to review.

"At the moment, Pharmac's view of the evidence is that there is no additional benefit to the 12-month course.

"National is now playing political football with the fears and emotions of New Zealand women suffering from breast cancer when they are most vulnerable and in need of reassurance and support," he said.

Jacqueline Harrison, founder of the Skip For Life charity, said she was disappointed with the outcome, but lobby group the Women's Health Action Trust said Pharmac had made the right decision. Trust director Jo Fitzpatrick said Herceptin had been wrongly promoted as a "magic bullet" for early breast cancer treatment.

"At its best, 87 women in every 100 taking Herceptin get no benefit from the drug at all and may be harmed by it," she said.

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