Nicholas Jones is a New Zealand Herald political reporter.

Tauranga woman gets Government's attention in drug funding battle

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Leisa Renwick with Tauranga MP Simon Bridges and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman after delivering the 11,000-strong petition, calling for Pharmac to fund melanoma drugs, at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Leisa Renwick with Tauranga MP Simon Bridges and Health Minister Jonathan Coleman after delivering the 11,000-strong petition, calling for Pharmac to fund melanoma drugs, at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The Government has all but promised that a melanoma drug will be funded by Pharmac after the drug-buying agency gets a boost in funding with the May Budget.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman met melanoma survivors, patients and supporters outside Parliament yesterday. He helped accept an 11,000-signature petition calling on the Government to boost Pharmac's funding so it can fund melanoma treatment.

Petition organiser and melanoma survivor Leisa Renwick, of Tauranga, said people were desperate.

"In this country, that has the highest rate of melanoma in the world ... those of us with melanoma and our families are expendable. Only those with the means to pay can access medicines that can save our lives. The wealthy are offered treatment and the poor are sent home to die and that's a fact."

Patients are having to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for life-saving drugs.

Dr Coleman told the crowd of about 100 that he understood the need for urgency, and the Government was looking at how much more money Pharmac could be given as part of May's Budget.

Ms Renwick presented the petition to her MP, Simon Bridges. She was told last May that she had only weeks to live but is now in remission after an expensive, private treatment of pembrolizumab (Keytruda is the commercial name).

"If I hadn't got these drugs, I would have died in three weeks. That's how fast it is. I think that's why this is the big dirty secret, because up until now people haven't had the chance to stand up, because they are dying. Now we can be seen, and now we can help the others who can't get access to the drugs."

The Government has come under intense pressure for a lack of funding for Keytruda and similar drugs, with Labour pledging to direct Pharmac to fund Keytruda.

Dr Coleman originally said he would not be meeting the group but since changed his mind, although not his position that decisions on drugs must remainPharmac's and not politicians.

Yesterday, he repeated his position that what drugs to fund was a decision for Pharmac, not the Government. However, more money for Pharmac was likely as part of May's Budget.

"I believe a funded treatment is on the way ... I totally understand your sentiment that there isn't a moment to waste ... the Government has heard your message. John Key has been following this issue very closely, and he knows all the ins and outs of it."

Mr Bridges said he agreed it was not the Government's place to tell Pharmac what drugs to fund and said the best the Government could do was to allocate more money to Pharmac in the May budget.

"I admire Leisa and what she's done. She's got a huge amount of energy and she's had to bring that to be able to bring the petition to Parliament. It's certainly got the attention of the Government, the media and I'm sure many New Zealanders."

Mr Bridges yesterday tabled the petition with the Clerk of the House and it was read before question time in Parliament. It would now be allocated for the Health Select Committee to consider.

"The Government is taking note of the issue that Leisa's bought. In effect this is an issue about the funding of Pharmac. They [Pharmac] will require more money to fund Keytruda," he said.

"I understand the impatience as a life or death issue but generally speaking it's not for the Government to tell Pharmac which drugs to fund and there really isn't another avenue for injecting more funding except for the budget."

Labour leader Andrew Little said urgency was needed, and funding the drugs was more important than the flag referendum or future tax cuts.

"We are not a poor nation. We are a wealthy nation, we can do better for our citizens."

Annette King, Labour's health spokeswoman, said the petition showed the strength of public feeling on the issue: "I believe that it is going to have an impact on the Government. They can't resist this sort of pressure coming from ordinary people."

Additional reporting Amy Wiggins

Keytruda:

* Keytruda is a breakthrough immunology drug used to treat patients with advanced melanoma and lung cancer

* Also known as pembrolizumab

* The drug's supplier: Merck Sharp and Dohme

* The full price of the medicine, excluding GST and clinic costs, would typically be $122,000 to $163,000 a year, depending on a patient's weight, although the ideal duration of treatment is unknown and it is unlikely to be suitable for all patients.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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