Jacinda Ardern defends Labour's 'perfectly reasonable' decision to veto MP-led Pharmac inquiry

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is defending Labour's "perfectly reasonable" decision to veto a Pharmac inquiry led by MPs on Parliament's Health Select Committee. 

Members of Health Select Committee met last Thursday for the first time since the election and National Party members moved for an inquiry into unfunded medicines by the Government's drug-buying agency. 

Labour MPs vetoed the move sparking anger from National MPs, including leader Judith Collins who tweeted her disappointment because the Prime Minister promised a Pharmac review during the election campaign. 

"During the campaign, Jacinda Ardern and I both promised an inquiry into Pharmac. Look what happened this morning when National pushed for one in the Health Select Committee," Collins wrote on Twitter. 

"I think the rational for that was perfectly reasonable," Ardern responded on Monday. "There are some issues that are important enough that they shouldn't necessarily be left to a select committee process which can sometimes be quite drawn out.

"Yes it is cross-party but actually, we have taken ownership of this as Government. I pledged during the election campaign that we would undertake this inquiry into Pharmac and we will, so it made no sense to leave that to the select committee when we've already said that it's something that needs to be done by us."

It wasn't the first time Labour MPs blocked an MP-led inquiry into Pharmac. A vote held at the Health Select Committee in April 2019 to hold an inquiry into Pharmac's processes was blocked by Labour and New Zealand First MPs. 

More than a year later Ardern and Collins were asked during the Newshub Leaders Debate in September if they would support an investigation into Pharmac's funding model - and Ardern committed to it. 

"If it gives people faith in our system, then yes," she told host Patrick Gower. 

National's health spokesperson Shane Reti suggested last week that Labour had turned its back on Ardern's promise to have an inquiry into Pharmac after the Health Select Committee's bid was shut down. 

"Once again, Labour voted against the motion, despite Jacinda Ardern's agreement that an inquiry was needed during the campaign trail," Dr Reti said. 

"It's now starting to look as though Labour only agreed with an inquiry when it was politically palatable in the midst of an election campaign."

But Health Minister Andrew Little confirmed the Government was planning an independent inquiry into Pharmac and that Labour just didn't support it being led by politicians on the Health Select Committee. 

"We're committed to doing a review of Pharmac. It needs to be at arm's length from politicians. It's not right for politicians making political judgements about Pharmac and its decisions. There are high-level policy decisions but it is better that they are reviewed at arm's length and independently," he told reporters. 

He said work was underway to establish terms of reference and an appropriate review body. 

"There was a motion I understand put up at the Health Select Committee for politicians to conduct that review but that would be inappropriate."

Ardern also confirmed that officials are working on it. 

"I've already flagged it with officials that it needs to be on the work programme for Health but I'll need to provide you with an update. It's something that as soon as we came in - I believe even before we swore in as Government - I indicated we needed to progress."

The Government announced in May an increase of $160 million over four years for Pharmac in Budget 2020, bringing its budget to more than $1 billion for 2020/2021. 

But Malcolm Mulholland, chair of Patient Voice Aotearoa, says there is a medicine crisis. 

He says petitions asking for medicines to be funded across a range of cancers, rare disorders and chronic illnesses, alongside a petition to double Pharmac's budget and reform the agency, total over 300,000 signatures.

"Open your ears Prime Minister," he said last week. "Other countries, such as Australia, do not put all their medicines in one supplier and are not experiencing medicine supply issues on the scale that is now being experienced by New Zealanders."

It comes after a petition was presented to Parliament last Wednesday with more than 30,000 signatures asking for drugs to be funded for Crohn's and Colitis patients.  

Pharmac itself is facing some difficulties with supply issues similar to Australia. New Zealand's drug-buying agency funds nearly 1000 medicines and it is reliant on budget availability.