Crohn's and Colitis patients and supporters march on the offices of New Zealand's drug buying agency Pharmac.
Opinion

Why haven't we seen the Pharmac review?

You may be aware that we’re waiting for the government to release the Pharmac review.  

It's all done, it's with the Minister of Health, Andrew Little, and it's been on his desk for 13 weeks. You and I paid around a million taxpayer dollars for that report, and it's done. But we don't know what that inquiry has found. For reasons known only to the government, the report hasn't been released. 

The review was headed up by former Consumer New Zealand CEO, Sue Chetwin. 

It's been a tough ask for Chetwin. 

In an interim report, this is what the review panel said about Pharmac: 

"Pharmac zealously guards information about a host of operational and financial matters, making it difficult to measure the extent to which it is meeting its objectives.  

"What information it has given us limits meaningful analysis."

So, some frustration there. Pharmac always sights commercial sensitivity, and those negotiations are sensitive, however, Pharmac flies above all over government departments. It answers to itself and when you have an entity that is failing people, 75 drugs on that waiting list, you have to ask yourself who's winning from letting Pharmac continue to operate as an unaccountable closed shop? 

So, the review is done. The report is complete. Pharmac has seen it. The minister has seen it. And it sits in the minister's office and has done for 13 weeks. The government won’t release it or say when they will. But you can bet your pants the minister and Pharmac have spent the last three months shaping their response to it and covering their backsides. 

The origins of this inquiry lie in 2018, Malcolm Mulholland, a medicines advocate and co-founder of Patient Voice Aotearoa asked the health select committee to hold an inquiry into Pharmac.

The following year, in April 2019, there was a vote and the Labour MPs, the government MPs on the health select committee, voted it down. It was blocked by labour. There would be no inquiry. 

Then in 2020, an election year, journalist Paddy Gower took up the issue.

In 'Decision 2020', when he was hosting Newshub’s election debate. He had Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins in front of him. Gower had already asked Ardern to describe the health system in one word and she admitted it, Ardern said it was 'broken'.

Gower, who has also been super frustrated by the failures of Pharmac and the number of modern medicines on that waiting list, pushed both Collins and Ardern to agree to an inquiry into the way Pharmac operates. Here’s how that unfolded in 2020.

Gower got the commitment, and as we know, Ardern went on to win with a remarkable majority, and she bedded in for a second term.

It then took five months for the government to agree to the terms of reference for the Pharmac review. And when they did, quite unbelievably, they had removed the budget from the terms of reference. So, the lack of funding is the key issue that's led to our unfunded medicines crisis -- and the government said look at everything except the budget. That's off-limits. 

Nonetheless, the panel was told to deliver the interim report by August 2021. 

The interim report was four months late, then finally, the Pharmac review was delivered to minister Andrew Little on the 28th of February, 2022. 

13 weeks ago. 13 weeks it’s been with the minister and Pharmac. 

I asked Pharmac’s CEO last week if she had seen it. She said yes. And the minister of health has seen it. And they won't release it. 

And there we have it, ladies and gentlemen. Just as they promised us, the most transparent government ever. 

I know that Pharmac and the minister's office will be furiously trying to counter some of the criticisms in that report. It was deliberately not released before the budget. How cynical. How obstructive. 

We paid for it. We called for it. They committed to it. We need to see it. Why haven't we seen the Pharmac review?