Access to drugs ‘should be a right’

Cancer patient Jennie Wedge is calling on the government to improve funding for cancer medicines....
Cancer patient Jennie Wedge is calling on the government to improve funding for cancer medicines. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
A South Otago woman facing an $11,044 monthly bill for cancer medication says access to life-saving drugs "should be a right, not a privilege".

Jennie Wedge needs lung cancer drug osimertinib to help manage her stage 4 cancer.

However, the drug remains unfunded in New Zealand — despite the promises of the National Party prior to last year’s election, it was among the 13 cancer drugs passed over in Budget 2024.

The Clydevale resident was surprised how much the decision not to fund the drugs had upset her.

"This journey has been incredibly tough, both emotionally and financially.

"I never imagined that I would have to fight so hard just to get the treatment I need to stay alive.

"I believe that no-one should have to go through this — access to life-saving drugs should be a right, not a privilege."

As a nurse she was familiar with the field of healthcare, but had not known about the struggle for cancer medications in an underfunded system.

She hoped to raise awareness of the situation.

She initially experienced flu-like symptoms, but her breathlessness persisted intermittently.

Despite her GP’s diligence and numerous tests, her condition remained undiagnosed.

By the end of January, with no improvement, Mrs Wedge turned to private care due to the four-month wait for the respiratory clinic.

In early March a CT scan revealed a mass on the right upper lobe of her lungs, and she was subsequently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

She was not working during her initial three-month treatment period but hoped to resume working in the future.

Despite having health insurance, she was denied coverage for osimertinib, a life-extending medication, leaving her family to cover the cost of $11,044 per month.

"We did have some life insurance, which has crisis support, and it has helped.

"We’re luckier than a lot of people, I guess — but you don’t feel very lucky."

"There are people who just wouldn’t be able to afford to do anything at all, and my heart really bleeds for them."

It would make a big difference to those with cancer if they could get the medication they needed without having to fight for it, or try to source it elsewhere, she said.

The recent Budget revealed a boost of $1.77 billion over four years to government drug-buying agency Pharmac, which will cover ongoing costs for existing medicines, but not fund the new ones as promised.

Southern Cancer Society chief executive Nicola Coom said Mrs Wedge’s story was a stark reminder of the gaps in the healthcare system.

"No-one should have to face delays or financial barriers when it comes to receiving a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"We are calling on the government to fund Pharmac so that these essential drugs are available to every New Zealander, regardless of their circumstances."