Opinion

Cancer treatments go unfunded while we throw billions at COVID

The Cancer Control Agency, Te Aho o Te Kahu - has released a report today on how we treat cancer. 

I have long talked about New Zealand's unfunded medicines crisis. We sit at the bottom of the OECD, there are first-line treatments that are funded all over the world, but not here. 

There are third world countries that fund medicines that we don't. Successive governments spin, spin, spin this issue and say 'we can't fund everything' but here is the reality - there is so much that we don't fund. 

Today's report, which would have cost a gazillion taxpayer dollars to produce, compares New Zealand's approach to cancer drugs with Australia's approach. 

And what do you know? We come out reasonably okay, but this report is a shocker. It says there are 20 'gaps' in our system, but it only focuses on what most of our peer nations would call the absolute essential medicines. The must-haves. 

But, and it's a big but, there are well over 65 other treatments on top of the essentials that we don't fund to treat cancer. This report recommends funding one cancer medicine for breast cancer. Australia funds 18 medicines to treat breast cancer. 

It was always going to go easy on our failings because the cancer control agency is reporting to the Ministry of Health. It is also funded by the Ministry of Health - so you get the box-ticking exercise that this is. 

And this report is, tragically, guilty of grossly misrepresenting the size of our cancer medicine shortfall. 

There are now 78 medicines languishing on Pharmac’s waiting list to treat a long list of diseases and conditions, and they're on the list because of a lack of funding. Some have been there for more than a decade. 

If you narrow it down to the cancer treatments on that list, there are drugs to cover so many cancers. On Pharmac’s options for investment list (a waiting list in all but name), there is a litany of unfunded drugs to treat various cancers including lung, bowel, breast, prostate, kidney, melanoma, bladder, colorectal, head and neck, ovarian, cervical and many treatments for the variants of blood and bone cancers. 

For whatever reason, the cancer control agency says there are about 20 'gaps' in our system compared to Australia. That's bad enough, but it is far, far worse than that. 

Until we sort this issue out, until we find the courageous leadership who will address this issue, here is my advice to you or anyone you love who has cancer in New Zealand and needs modern medicines. 

Ask your oncologist or your specialist this question - "If I was your wife or husband or child, and you had access to all of the world's modern medicines, what would you treat me with?" 

And then get on the net, find the advocacy group here - there are many advocacy groups for the different cancer types and they offer lots of advice- and then find the national bodies in Australia too, and see what they fund. 

I speak with cancer patients all the time. All the time. Some are never told about the modern medicines we don't fund. They're given some of the ropey treatments we have here, or palliative care. They are never told about the modern drugs they could self-fund to save or extend their life.

Here's an example. Keytruda is immunotherapy, a breakthrough drug, it's not funded for the treatment of many cancers, so the drug company that developed Keytruda, has a cost-sharing programme here. 

You pay $60k for Keytruda and then - get this - the government will clip the ticket and add $9k of GST to the modern drugs it doesn't fund, and then you will have to pay to get a nurse or a clinic to administer the drug for you because our DHB's won't administer a modern medicine if the government doesn't fund it. So that's about $1,500.

That's just one example - I can list many. You can do the same with Avastin or Cetuximab for bowel cancer and those drugs also treat other cancers too. Tecentriq is another, it's used for some cancers including triple-negative breast cancer. All can be self-funded, and you can bypass the government's failings. 

Tragically, as I'm sure you can imagine, not everyone has access to this sort of money and those kiwis will die prematurely. 

This week, the cancer control agency Te Aho o Te Kahu had an opportunity to be a bold voice; to stand on the side of you and me, of the New Zealand public, and reveal just how poorly we're doing. 

And they chose not to. 

Where is our Health Minister on this? Today Andrew Little will be in Māngere at 2 o'clock, to see the first batch of another new COVD medicine arrive on our shores. More money we've thrown at COVID meds. 

Just imagine for a minute if you're one of our many, many citizens who need drugs to treat their cancer. 

There's no money to treat cancer, but this government seems to have all the money in the world to treat COVID.

How can we let people die from treatable diseases while throwing billions... BILLIONS... at this virus?