National promises $200 million cancer fund

If elected, National will set aside $200 million for a fund dedicated to buying cancer drugs.

Leader Simon Bridges made the announcement on Sunday morning at the party's annual conference in Christchurch.

"New Zealanders shouldn't have to pack up their lives and go to other countries for cancer treatment," he told the party faithful.

"New Zealanders shouldn't have to mortgage their houses, set up a Givealittle page or take out massive loans to be able to afford medicines which are funded in other countries."

He said the current Government isn't putting enough into Pharmac to keep up with inflation or population, and patients currently are subject to a "postcode lottery", with levels of care varying between district health boards.

"The agency will be involved in prevention, screening and treatment. New Zealand is a world leader in research and innovation, so the centre will also facilitate research so that in the future we can prevent cancer and treat it more effectively. "

The fund will get $50 million a year over four years, Bridges said. The money will be ring-fenced for cancer drugs.

"If they don't use it, they don't get it."

Pharmac will be told to buy drugs that "demonstrate high levels of effectiveness internationally".

"We don't want just more drugs - we want drugs that will save lives."

A vote held at the Health Select Committee in April to hold an inquiry into Pharmac's processes was tied 4-4, blocked by Labour and NZ First MPs. Health Minister David Clark said politicians shouldn't be interfering with Pharmac's decisions.

"Ultimately, these decisions are made by clinical experts and I think it is really important that politicians don't second-guess those clinical decisions," he told The AM Show.

"People have confidence in the Pharmac model as a whole, the public does, because it is independent, because it is expert-driven and because it gets the value that it gets.

"It might be politically expedient for me to have an inquiry, but I actually think we need to focus our resources on making sure that the health system is performing and responding."

Pharmac nearly doubled its spending on cancer drugs between 2011 and 2017, during National's time in power, while health spending as a percentage of GDP actually fell. Mortality rates for cancers have fallen about 22 percent since the mid-1990s.

The UK has a national cancer fund which buys drugs not funded by the National Health Service, which although popular among the public has had limited impact on patient survival rates

"In science, we demand levels of evidence, but public policy is opinion-based, not evidence-based," researcher Prof Richard Sullivan of the institute of cancer policy at King's College London told the Guardian. "You can't have that in health. Populism doesn't work."

Sullivan was in New Zealand earlier this year. He told RNZ: "Countries and people are being asked to pay a great deal of money for the unknown and a lot of that unknown doesn't pan out. When we look backwards over sort of two or three years, we discover the drugs actually don't work."

And Pharmac's own research in 2017 found most of the drugs funded in Australia that aren't funded here were ineffective or even harmful. 

"The advice I've had on the earlier UK early access drug scheme was that there would have been five times the health benefit if the money had just stayed in the NHS - because early access for some drugs means later access for other drugs, unless you've got an unlimited amount of money," Dr Clark said in 2018.

"Some of these drugs turn out not to be effective, others turn out to have side-effects."

Bridges said the cancer agency would be set up inside National's first 100 days in office. 

"Cancer is our single biggest cause of death. Most of us will have some experience of it either personally or through a relative or friend. When a New Zealander is going through what will be the most difficult time in their lives, their country should be there for them."