Larry Williams: Cancer drug debate not solved by wild spending

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Listen to Larry Williams now on Newstalk ZB, 4pm to 7pm. Today he looks at the melanoma drug funding debate.
Melanoma check. Image / iStock
Melanoma check. Image / iStock

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman is getting beaten up rather badly for refusing to order Pharmac to fund the melanoma cancer drug Keytruda.

This is unfair. The Government interfered in Pharmac when they promised to fund Herceptin at the 2008 election - a dirty political bribe. Coleman has at least acknowledged it was wrong to override Pharmac's authority.

Labour is now pulling the same cynical stunt in demanding the Government fund Keytruda.

Labour leader Andrew Little apparently met with drug company lobbyists months before Labour announced its stance to override Pharmac and fund Keytruda. Is this a coincidence?

Little denies Keytruda was discussed but it's about perception isn't it. The perception is, Labour is in the pockets of Big Pharma. Just imagine if the position was reversed and National was having these secret meetings. Labour would be in a frenzy.

It gets worse. Presumably Labour now has a new drugs policy. Little says that "when a drug was available that had been proven effective in other countries, the politicians - being accountable for the use of taxpayers' money - should say, "We want this available".

This is deceitful. Labour have never funded drugs on that basis. Never. Now, all of a sudden, after a secret meeting with Big Pharma, they're going to fund the latest state-of-the art drugs. Cost is no longer an issue, seemingly.

Political interference in drug selection is clearly foolish.

Pharmac is the body charged with deciding the efficacy of drugs. They have the clinical expertise, they should decide - not self-serving politicians.

Pharmac has given Keytruda a "low priority" for two key reasons. Cost and effectiveness.

The drug is very expensive and the long term data is not yet in. It's possible that Keyruda is both clinically and cost effective, but they don't yet know.

Oncologists say that New Zealand cannot access many state-of-the-art cancer medicines through the public health system. The real issue is the funding of Pharamc because if Kiwis can't get access to cancer drugs, that will surely apply to other drugs.

Successive Governments have funded Pharmac the same way, and Pharmac has to get the best "bang for its bucks' - which is currently around $800 million a year.

This masks the ongoing problem - the pharmaceutical funding challenge going forward - much better drugs at much higher cost.

If we want the latest whizz bang drugs then a new innovative way of funding Pharmac will have to be worked out, beyond Labour's extreme new policy of just dumping more taxpayer cash into the pot.

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