Cancer drug advocate holds back tears pleading for Pharmac funding boost

National MP Maggie Barry is promising cancer drug advocates she will continue to push for an inquiry into Pharmac's spending on life-extending medicines.  

MPs at the Health Select Committee heard from a range of campaigners calling for Pharmac to fund more medicines, from those that deal with lung cancer, to ovarian cancer, breast cancer and leukaemia. 

Neil Graham, a medical specialist, presented to the committee over his petition calling for funding of life-saving treatments for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

Graham held back tears telling the committee how the drug put him into remission. He said he's now living a full and active existence. 

"New Zealanders are dying unnecessarily because they cannot access these medicines," he said. "The current Pharmac model needs to change."

Rachel Brown, who founded the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation with her sister after her mother passed away from the disease in 2006, is calling on Pharmac to fund Lynparza and Avastin for ovarian cancer.

Brown told MPs Pharmac's "refusal" to fund the drugs "is deliberately causing the premature deaths of New Zealanders". 

She said it's time for Pharmac's funding model to be reviewed. 

Neil Graham presenting at the Health Select Committee.
Neil Graham presenting at the Health Select Committee. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

"We presented a petition signed by almost 3000 to ask for the drugs to be funded by Pharmac and we're also asking for an inquiry into Pharmac," she said. 

"I'm reluctantly here, because it's our perception that we're not being listened to."

She said the vast majority of OECD countries fund Lynparza and New Zealand doesn't. She asked MPs: "What is it that Pharmac knows that other counties don't?"

Brown is also urging the Government to adopt the UK's Gold Standards Framework which provides guidelines around quality end-of-life care and aims to ensure all patients have a "good death". 

"I challenge you, that shouldn't you be standing with your constituents and saying, 'We should do better'?" Brown asked the select committee. 

"It's no way to treat the citizens of this country... This has obviously become political - who's going to show that they really get it?"

Rachel Brown presenting to the Health Select Committee.
Rachel Brown presenting to the Health Select Committee. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Pharmac's spending on cancer drugs was thrust into the spotlight in October last year when breast cancer sufferers presented petitions to MPs on the steps of Parliament asking for two medicines to be funded.

It led to breast cancer sufferer Wiki Mulholland and her husband Malcolm calling for an inquiry into Pharmac and unfunded cancer medicines, but it was voted down at the Health Select Committee. 

National MP Maggie Barry, a member of the select committee, told Brown she supports an inquiry into Pharmac and said she will "continue" to push for one. 

"Not all of us agree that Pharmac should not be investigated. While the committee decided, there were many of us that feel very strongly that there needs to be an inquiry into Pharmac."

The select committee also heard from Emma Crowley, deputy chair of Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition, whose petition is calling on Pharmac to increase its spending on breast cancer medicines. 

She labelled Pharmac's budget "pathetically small and inadequate" and said she believes there is "need for better processes". 

"Our system has not coped well, we are falling behind... We urge you to get behind every call behind an inquiry into Pharmac."

National MP Maggie Barry at the Health Select Committee.
National MP Maggie Barry at the Health Select Committee. Photo credit: Newshub

Pharmac got a $10 million annual funding increase for the next four years in Budget 2019. It wasn't enough, according to charities like the Cancer Society, who labelled it "disappointing".

In Budget 2018 the Government decided not to reinvest the $200 million of savings by Pharmac into buying more cancer drugs, which Crowley and her colleagues described as "astonishing". 

"I'd like to remind you these are people who, through no fault of their own, have had their cancer advance," Crowley said. "Do we condemn them to medical bankruptcy and death?"

Committee chair and Labour MP Louisa Wall said the Ministry of Health's priority is on implementing an early detection scheme. 

Crowley said the priority should be on funding more medicines.