Drug funding U-turn ‘despicable’

Melissa Vining
Melissa Vining
Melissa Vining has blasted the government for a "despicable" U-turn on promised funding for cancer medicines in Budget 2024.

The Southern cancer patient advocate said people would remain in the crippling situation of trying to pay for the 13 unfunded drugs themselves, often helped by crowdfunding.

National had been clear in its promise last August to fund the drugs, which targeted a range of cancers from bowel cancer to melanoma.

"Not to deliver on that is just despicable," Mrs Vining said.

"My heart literally aches for those cancer patients right now that were expecting these drugs to be funded."

Thursday’s Budget revealed a boost of $1.77 billion over four years to government drug-buying agency Pharmac.

This would just cover ongoing costs for existing medicines — not the 13 additional drugs promised pre-election.

People might not understand how bad the situation was, with New Zealand ranked lowest in the OECD for access to modern medicine, she said.

Mrs Vining, a leading figure behind the Southland Charity Hospital, whose husband Blair Vining died of bowel cancer in 2019, said she knew the feeling of wanting to give a loved one more quality time.

Cancer patients often felt guilt about having the treatment they needed and putting their family in financial difficulty, she said.

The cost of the unfunded drugs were more than tens of thousands of dollars, and administration costs to have them administered at a private hospital could be up to $4000 a week, she said.

Those now facing such costs were upset — some had voted for the current government on the basis of the promised funding.

Health Minister Dr Shane Reti was a GP and would be acutely aware of what it was like for someone facing cancer in need of unfunded medication, she said.

"I just cannot understand this decision at all.

"I, along with many New Zealanders, would happily cut the small tax cut that we’ve been given to fund these drugs.

"The Pharmac model is embarrassing, old and outdated ... This is not a good start."

The Cancer Society of New Zealand also criticised the decision following the release of the Budget.

Chief executive Dr Rachael Hart said all New Zealanders should have access to modern medicines when they needed them, regardless of their economic status.

"Our hearts go out to those living with cancer and their whānau who had their hopes raised by National’s election promise last August to fund 13 cancer drugs, only to see them crushed today," she said.

"Today’s announcement means that many will continue to struggle to afford the medicines they desperately need, leading to unnecessary suffering and potentially worse health outcomes."

Funding for the drugs in future Budgets had not been ruled out, but people who needed them now may not have a year to wait, she said.

Without more funding, efforts to improve Pharmac could only go so far.

Announcing the planned boost last August, National said cancer survival rates in New Zealand lagged behind Australia partly due to Australia’s broader funding for cancer medications.

"Clinicians have told us that 1500 New Zealanders die a year for similar conditions where they might otherwise survive in Australia — we want to address that treatment gap," Dr Reti said at the time.

He pointed to the previous government when asked about the situation yesterday.

"The previous government left a fiscal cliff for Pharmac that would have resulted in severely restricted access to life-saving medicines.

"With the $1.77 billion injection we’ve made into Pharmac, we’re ensuring people can continue to access the cancer medicines we have available now, and Pharmac can continue to look into expanding access to more life-saving medicines."

The government was "absolutely committed" to increasing access to cancer drugs, and Pharmac had announced two more in the past six months, he said.