Husband of cancer patient might enter politics

The husband of a cancer patient has accused the Government of failing to provide the necessities of life for his wife and others battling the disease.

Malcolm Mulholland says he's considering mounting a legal challenge to force Health Minister David Clark and the Government to fund life-saving drugs, and if they don't, he may even enter politics himself.

"While we wait for dilly-dally David to get his A into G... people die," he told The AM Show on Monday morning. "That's the cold, hard reality of the delay by this current Labour Government." 

A cancer agency was promised by Labour before the last election, but in June the Prime Minister said it might not happen after all, with investigations into how it might be structured ongoing. 

"Labour don't get it," said Mulholland. "The one meeting we had with David Clark, I wasn't sure if we were talking to a minister of the Crown or a minister of the cloth, to be perfectly honest. I have no idea why it is they're not hearing the needs of the people on the street." Before entering politics, Dr Clark was a Presbyterian minister

In the meantime, National has announced it will set up a dedicated cancer agency - lifting Labour's pre-election policy almost wholesale. Leader Simon Bridges promised $50 million a year would be ringfenced for cancer drugs only. 

Pharmac spends about $220 million a year on cancer drugs already, twice what it did in 2011. Mulholland says if the agency is to have a real impact, it needs to double that again - $50 million isn't enough.

"That's just a drop in the ocean. If we want to get real about affecting change for cancer patients, then realistically you have to double the budget - which would be $220 million every year."

Even then, he says, New Zealand would only spend per capita about two-thirds the OECD average on cancer drugs. 

New Zealand's five-year cancer survival rates are among the best in the OECD, but lag behind Australia. Our five-year breast cancer survival rate is slightly behind Australia's; Australia's colon cancer survival rate is significantly ahead of ours; and for rectal cancer, we're about 4 percent behind. They also have us beat in survival rates for lung, stomach and ovary cancers.

Our survival rates are higher, however, for leukemia, liver and prostate cancers. New Zealanders are also less likely to develop malignant cancers, according to the latest OECD data, and less likely to die overall (Australia data vs NZ). 

David Clark.
David Clark. Photo credit: Newshub.

Dr Clark told TVNZ on Monday the Government would be announcing its own cancer action plan in the coming weeks.

"We've been very focused on getting this plan right... and that involved working with the sector how we do this. The National Party just announced that it wanted to take some actions, and the feedback I've had from the sector has been pretty consistent - that they haven't been talked to, and they see that plan as light on detail."

He said nobody wants the current 'postcode lottery' system, where the level of care you get depends on where you live. Dr Clark said he welcomed National's change of heart on a dedicated cancer agency, considering in 2015 the party canned Cancer Control NZ, a ministerial advisory committee focused on streamlining cancer services.

Mulholland has helped set up Patient Voice Aotearoa to advocate for better health care, particularly when it comes to cancer. He says they are considering legal options, as well as forming a new political party and hosting a 'hikoi for health'. 

"These are all options we are currently pursuing, moving forward."

As for going into politics, he says he's a bit busy looking after his wife at present.

"We really just have to see how it might look like, moving forward."

Chris Jackson, medical director of the Cancer Society, says successive governments have dropped the ball on cancer.

"We know the National Government for example, abolished central leadership - they abolished the Cancer Control Council and the abolished the New Zealand guidelines group. And before that, the previous Labour Government announced a bowel cancer screening programme they hadn't funded."

Chris Jackson.
Chris Jackson. Photo credit: The AM Show

And when National funded Keytruda nearly a decade ago, Dr Jackson says they forgot to hire staff capable of administering it, so waiting lists grew.

"It's fantastic to have more treatments available, but there can be consequences down the track of having additional drugs which are funded - which is why you need to have a comprehensive approach to cancer and make sure you don't just try and pick the strawberries out and deliver the goodies. 

"You've actually got to do the hard work and the grunt to make sure you get the whole system right and you have the staffing there to deliver it as well."

He also questioned the $50 million annual investment, saying that might only be enough to cover two or three new treatment options.

"That's quite limited, which is why you'd need an expert group to size this up, to work out how it would work and work out how you could get the best bang for the buck, rather than just a quick announcement."