Pharmac's reduced funding for epilepsy drug raises concerns over driving, seizures

Pharmac will stop funding two brands of a particular epilepsy drug from Tuesday, meaning patients have to switch to a third.

Despite Pharmac's confidence, there will be no adverse effects, the move has prompted the New Zealand Transport Agency to advise patients to stop driving for two months after making the change. 

For comedian, actress, and celebrant Penny Ashton, not being able to drive would enormously affect her livelihood.

"No one gets married by public transport. They all get married on top of a cliff or on a beach, it would be so hard for me to get to those," Ashton told Newshub.

Ashton lives with epilepsy. Her Arrow-branded lamotrigine will no longer be funded by Pharmac, along with Lamictal, freeing up more than $30 million over five years.

Pharmac's reduced funding for epilepsy drug raises concerns over driving, seizures
Photo credit: Getty

She's switching to another brand, Logem, and plans to transition over three months - but others won't be so lucky.

"There are some people who have found out this week, so they haven't got a chance to stockpile because it's not available," says Ashton.

Switching drugs carries a small risk of seizures. If someone suffers a seizure, they will have to stop driving for 12 months.

"The really difficult group are going to be those who are seizure-free at the moment because if you have a seizure, it could have really major ramifications," says epilepsy specialist Dr Peter Bergin.

Stopping driving while changing to a different epilepsy medication is standard practice, but Logem, Arrow and Lamictal are three brands of the same drug.

"We talked to clinical experts before we went ahead with this change, they've assured us that lamotrigine works in the body in the same way," says Lisa Williams, Pharmac's operations director.

However, some people have had adverse effects, and the Transport Agency says doctors should consider recommending patients to cease driving for eight weeks after the switch.

"The inference I would have to draw is that NZTA is not confident that the drugs are in fact interchangeable... they don't have the same confidence that Pharmac apparently do," says Dr Bergin.

Pharmac does consider funding other drugs in exceptional circumstances and any patients with concerns should consult their doctor.


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