Pharmac announces funding for breast, ovarian cancer drugs

Pharmac has announced funding for ovarian cancer and breast cancer drugs.

The New Zealand drug-buying agency announced on Thursday that olaparib and fulvestrant, for ovarian and breast cancer respectively, would be funded in 2020. Thousands of Kiwis are expected to benefit.

Consultation on funding the medicines began in September after the Government unveiled a major $60 million cash injection into Pharmac as part of its 10-year cancer plan. Five cancer drugs have now been funded in the last six months, according to Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt.

Rituximab, which can be used for a range of cancer, blood and autoimmune conditions, and bortezomib, for blood cancer, are already funded, but Pharmac also announced on Thursday that access to those drugs would be widened. 

"We know people want funded access to effective cancer medicines as quickly as possible. Not only are we funding more cancer medicines, we are also speeding up our assessment process for new cancer medicines," Fitt said.

From January 1, 2020, Pharmac will assess funding applications for new cancer medicines at the same time that Medsafe is conducting its assessment. This could shorten the funding assessment period by 12 to 15 months, Pharmac said.

But Dr Chris Jackson, the Cancer Society medical director and oncologist, said quickening that process "will not help one more person get better access to cancer drugs and will not help people get cancer drugs faster".

Dr Jackson said Pharmac had been able to review medicines prior to a Medsafe review, so the change isn't significant. 

"We need real change, like time frames for decisions, greater involvement of experts in decisions, a framework for access to the most promising drugs like the UK Cancer Drugs Fund, and a close look at whether we are spending enough," he said.

"Patients want timely decisions to be made, whereas the current process is more like a black hole.

"Cancer Society also recommends the benchmarking of access to medicines in Aotearoa compared to other comparable countries. This would enable regular and transparent access to medical treatments and would be an indicator of our access to medicines against other countries."

He did, however, acknowledge Pharmac for recognising it needed to speed its processes up.

Addressing Dr Jackson's criticism, Fitt told Newshub Pharmac previously only reviewed funding medicines prior to a Medsafe review in "specific circumstances".

"In the past, we haven't usually started out process until the medicine has been registered. But we have listened to the public and they want access to these treatments more quickly, so we will now routinely start our assessments for cancer medicines at a much earlier stage."

Thursday's announcement was welcomed by Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition (BCAC) chair Libby Burgess who said fulvestrant was an important option for women with advanced oestrogen receptor-positive breast cancer. 

The coalition said the drug "delays the time before cytotoxic chemotherapy is needed and extends the quality and length of life for women with this form of breast cancer".

Fulvestrant was approved as safe by Medsafe in 2004, with the first funding application going to Pharmac in 2006. However, it was never granted money.

The BCAC lodged a new Pharmac application in May 2018, with a group providing clinical results showing the drug's effectiveness as well as information about the lack of treatment options for Kiwi women and their shorter lifespans relative to women from other countries.

"Women with advanced ER+ breast cancer have not had any new treatments funded for more than 20 years," Burgess said in a statement.

"New Zealand women with advanced breast cancer have a median survival of 16 months compared with 37 months in European countries such as Germany and France."

Burgess says the budget for funding medicines still needs to be increased and expects that will become "an election issue next year".

With the $60 million injection, Pharmac's annual budget is now over $1 billion. However, this isn't just for cancer medicine. 

The Government's 10-year cancer plan also included setting up a national cancer agency and developing cancer-specific quality-performance indicators. The Cancer Control Agency was opened this week.

Health Minister Dr David Clark said on Thursday the Government has made improving cancer care and control a "long-term priority".

"Cancer is a terrible disease, and I know these new drugs will be a welcome treatment option for many people. This is a Government committed to more medicines for more people," he said.

"I'm also pleased to note that Pharmac has now confirmed it will push ahead with the plan to consider funding applications for new cancer medicines at the same time as Medsafe does its work."