Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has asked Heath Minister David Clark to look into the issue of early access to new drugs following emotional pleas from women suffering from advanced breast cancer for the drugs to be funded.
Labour and New Zealand First MPs on the health select committee today voted against holding an inquiry into Pharmac, the Government drug-buying agency, despite submissions from women with advanced breast cancer.
"I do think there are questions to be asked around early access to new drugs. That's something that I've asked the Minister to undertake some work on because that where we see, time and time again, questions being raised," Ardern told reporters.
She said that while select committees had the power to investigate and make recommendations, they could not make changes.
"If we do want to look into the issue of early access which is an area where Pharmac, for all its strengths, that's one area I think is worthy of consideration. That's much more quickly able to be done by a Minister."
The health select committee has been considering a petition signed by close to 34,000 people calling for Pharmac to fully fund cancer drugs Ibrance and Kadcyla.
Ibrance, when taken in conjunction with other drugs, can inhibit the progress of breast cancer and potentially prolong the life of the patient, clinical trials show.
Australia announced last week that Ibrance would be publicly funded there.
In New Zealand it costs around $6000 per month.
Malcolm Mulholland, the husband of Wiki Mulholland who has breast cancer, was at Parliament today to hear the decision of the select committee.
He was devastated to learn that the three Labour MPs had voted against it.
Mulholland didn't know how he was going to tell his wife of 20 years, who was one of the women with advanced breast cancer who have made emotional pleas to the committee to push Pharmac to fund Ibrance and Kadcyla and hold an inquiry into the agency.
"I'm just gutted," he said.
"The result of this decision is that people with advanced cancer, including breast cancer, will die sooner than they should. Why? Because the New Zealand system of funding drugs is broken."
Clark said work was underway on looking at Pharmac's commitments on early intervention schemes.
He said it was completely understandable that people with late-stage cancer and their families would want access to publically funded medicines.
"The truth is that with Pharmac, they have a process under way. They are looking at these medicines currently," he told reporters.
Drug companies Pfizer and Roche, which make Ibrance and Kadcyla respectively, are awaiting a decision by the Pharmacology and Therapeutic Advisory Committee on whether their application for Pharmac funding has been successful. That decision is due in May.
Clark denied a claim that committee chairwoman Labour MP Louisa Wall told Mulholland he had blocked an inquiry.
"I have not said anything to the members of the select committee privately that I haven't said publically. I think Pharmac does a really good job of making sure we have amongst the cheapest medicines in the world," Clark said.
Clark has repeatedly said there was no need for an inquiry into Pharmac, despite claims it is outdated.
"The health committee will have been aware of my views but it makes its own decisions. I respect the role select committees play as a watchdog on ministers and I would never interfere with their independence," he said.
Wiki Mulholland told the health committee last month that Ibrance had been hailed as a "game-changer" around the world which could be used for first and second line treatment.
She questioned why women had to go to Malaysia or move to Australia or the UK to access cheaper life-extending drugs.
Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt has previously said the agency understood patients, their families and whānau wanted the newest medicines in the hope they would provide the best possible health result, but Ibrance and Kadcyla were just two of many medicines Pharmac was considering for funding.