Damning report finds Pharmac is too focused on saving money, rather than lives

A damning report into New Zealand's drug-buying agency Pharmac has found it is too focused on saving money, rather than saving lives. 

The interim review found Pharmac has a 'fortress mentality', its processes are not patient-centric and while the agency talks about equity, there' not much action on it - in fact, the review panel is looking into whether racism is at play.

Lying down in the rain six months ago, protestors begged the Government to give Pharmac more money. Among them was Fiona Tolich from Patient Voice Aotearoa, and on Thursday a damning report echoed her concerns.

"It's our dirty little secret," she told Newshub. "New Zealand puts itself out on the world stage as being kind, caring, compassionate, empathetic - but we're allowing people to die."

The interim report into Pharmac condemns the agency, saying it has "a fortress mentality that permits little transparency."

It's also not fast enough, with the report saying: "It appears each funding decision 'takes as long as it takes", it's "increasingly disconnected from other parts of the health system", and "Pharmac's processes are not patient-centred." 

Health Minister Andrew Little said the Government will respond. 

"That's been identified and that's a matter of record in that report, so now we've got to work out some solutions."

The 'fortress mentality' extended to the review panel, with frustration repeatedly voiced about Pharmac's failure to provide them with information too.

"This is the first look under the bonnet at Pharmac, our drug-buying agency, for more than 25 years," says former Consumer New Zealand chief executive Sue Chetwin, who chaired the review. 

The panel is keeping an eye on equity for Maori, Pacific and disabled communities - how the potential for racism and ableism play out in Pharmac's work. It says Pharmac talks about equity but there is little in practice.

"Interim observations do find that Pharmac is a long way from providing fair and equitable outcomes for all New Zealanders," says Chetwin. 

And cash is a handbrake, even though Pharmac's Budget was excluded from the terms of reference.

The review found an "excessive focus on containing costs and using generic medicines as much as possible is causing New Zealand to fall behind". 

"Pharmac's cost-saving culture had got so out of hand it was having a detrimental effect on the health of New Zealanders."

"It seems that cost is the driving force, not patient need." 

Pharmac's fixed budget makes it unnecessarily focussed on containing costs.

"There's been penny-pinching right across the health system," says Little. "That is having an impact on people's healthcare and not just pharmaceuticals."

When asked if the review should have looked at Pharmac's budget, CEO Sarah Fitt smiled, and said: "Well, that was out of scope of the review."

For patients and now the panel, nothing about this is a laughing matter.