Govt throwing billions at COVID-19 but not doubling Pharmac budget 'makes no sense' - Malcolm Mullholland

The Pharmac model is broken, according to an advocate for increased access to life-saving drugs in New Zealand, and will lead to a stagnant life expectancy for cancer-stricken or chronically ill Kiwis.

Patient Voice Aotearoa chairman and the advocate behind the Sign4Life petition, Malcolm Mullholland, is campaigning to double the budget for Pharmac - the agency that decides which medicines are subsidised for public use in New Zealand - in order to fund transformative medications for critically ill Kiwis. 

On Wednesday, National revealed its health policy should it come to power in the October election. The policy promised an annual boost of about $90 million to Pharmac funding - comprising $50 million per year for cancer drugs and $20 million for rare disorders over a four-year period - and around $35 million annually to increase Pharmac's budget in line with wider health budget expansions.

Speaking to The AM Show on Thursday, Mullholland said he had been inundated with calls by patients following the release of National's proposal. He says the Opposition's announcement had been eagerly anticipated after various MPs had promised a transformative new policy, but patients were left underwhelmed.

"I've had patients ring up in tears, the reason being that a number of [them] had reached out to various National MPs. They were all told, 'there's something really good coming your way - wait for our announcement and you will be extremely happy'. Nobody was," Mulholland said.

"We want the entire Pharmac budget doubled - and even then we wouldn't be in line with Australia."

As outlined by Mulholland, New Zealand spends just over 5 percent of Vote Health - the main source of funding for the country's health and disability system - on medications. In comparison, Australia allocates about 14 percent - and funds 265 more drugs than New Zealand - with the OECD average sitting at 16 percent.

Doubling the budget will ensure about 10 percent of Vote Health is dedicated to potentially life-changing drugs, Mulholland says, which will mark significant progress.

Malcolm Mullholland says its hard for critically ill patients to see the Govt throwing billions at the COVID-19 response when they are "asking for a fraction".
Malcolm Mullholland says its hard for critically ill patients to see the Govt throwing billions at the COVID-19 response when they are "asking for a fraction". Photo credit: Getty

'They're just asking for a fraction of the cost to live longer or live well'

Mulholland says the country's COVID-19 crisis has been a smack in the face for critically ill Kiwis. As the Government forks out billions of dollars to protect the country against the coronavirus - including grinding the economy to a halt - numerous New Zealanders are suffering from cancers or chronic illnesses and cannot access the medications needed to improve their quality of life.

"Why is it you can't seem to afford a billion dollars a year in order for thousands of New Zealand patients to have full and healthy lives? It just makes no sense," Mullholland argues.

"Many of the patients we represent... look at [the Prime Minister], who goes, 'your health is our priority and because of that, we're going to lock the country down, [which] in turn is going to cost billions of dollars', whereas they just want a fraction of that cost in order to have a profound effect on their lives - either to live, to live longer or to live well. That's all their asking for."

He says Pharmac typically waits for competition to arrive on the international market, driving the price down - but its reputation as a "hard bargainer" comes at a cost.

"That means that for forever and a day, New Zealand's going to be anywhere between five to 15 years behind the rest of the world," Mulholland explains.

"If we want to adopt that model, that's fine - but what that will mean is that those with rare disorders, with chronic illnesses, with cancers - their life expectancy will remain stagnant, whereas the rest of the world will move on."

'This isn't just about keeping people alive'

It would cost about $1 billion a year to double Pharmac's budget, but would allow thousands of Kiwis to live full and productive lives.

Mullholland's wife Wiki, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, is able to work full-time and pay her taxes after six months on Ibrance - a drug for the treatment of locally advanced or metastatic breast cancer Pharmac decided to fund in March.

He says his wife is testament to the "life-changing" nature of some medications.

"This isn't about just keeping people alive and in hospital beds, this is about them leading full lives... because medicines have come that far."

National's announcement on Wednesday follows the Government's decision to increase Pharmac funding by $160 million over four years in Budget 2020, $10 million of which is to be allocated in 2020/2021. The remaining $150 million will be allocated over the next three years. 

Despite Pharmac's budget increasing to a record $985 million at the time, National's former health spokesperson Michael Woodhouse accused the Government of "skimping on funding".

In July, Health Minister Chris Hipkins announced that Pharmac would receive another boost of $150 million, as part of an additional $320 million in funding toward the ongoing COVID-19 response.

National has also pledged to ensure elective surgeries - a surgery which is planned in advance rather than done in an emergency situation - are completed within four months, the maximum waiting time according to guidelines.

Mullholland's 'Reform Pharmac and Double the Pharmac Budget' petition has achieved 36,316 signatures since it was published on August 26. He and Patient Voice Aotearoa will aim to present the petition to the Health Minister ahead of the October 17 election.