Warnings sounded over how National would fund new cancer treatment policy

If elected, National will pay for 13 new cancer treatments already available in Australia.

Leader Christopher Luxon said it would provide $280 million in ring-fenced funding to Pharmac over four years to pay for it.

The therapies would benefit those with lung, bowel, kidney, skin and head and neck cancers.

The money would come from limiting free prescriptions to pensioners and people on low incomes. Everyone else would have to pay $5 per prescription, capped at $100 a year per family.

Dr Kate Clarke's an oncologist long frustrated with Pharmac's funding decisions.

"There isn't enough money," she said.

Recently she wrote a letter to Pharmac pleading for critical cancer drugs to be prioritised.

"We are increasingly frustrated between the funding disparities between New Zealand and other jurisdictions."

Now National has unveiled its plan to address her concerns.

"National will invest $280m over four years to fund the 13 cancer treatments the NZ Cancer Control Agency says provides substantial clinical benefit that are funded in Australia but not here in New Zealand," Luxon said.

There are two drugs for lung cancer, one for liver, two for bowel, three for kidney, one for bladder, one for head and neck, and three for melanoma.

"Let's get real about it. New Zealand has 15 percent higher mortality rates than Australia," Luxon said.

They'll fund it by scrapping the universal free prescriptions policy, saving $619m over four years. 

They'd introduce targeted free prescriptions for low-income earners and pensioners, including an annual family prescription fee cap of $100, costing $303m. 

That leaves $316m, of which $280m will go to Pharmac to fund these cancer treatments.

"People who can afford to pay for prescriptions should and those that can't should be supported and subsided in the way we're talking about," Luxon said.

But Dr Clarke has a warning.

"Bringing those fees back in will lead to inequity of access and inequity of care," she said. "My concern about cancer therapy and Pharmac being a political football is that it doesn't provide long-term solutions."

Patient advocate Malcolm Mulholland is welcoming the policy, but says it's proof of systemic problems at Pharmac.

"What National has done today is stuck a sticking plaster over our embarrassing secret and that is that many of those drugs that National have said they'll fund is on the WHO's essential medicines list," he said.

"Pharmac and their operation doesn't change at all. This is ring-fenced incremental money," Luxon said.

However Labour leader Chris Hipkins sounded a warning: "I think we need to be careful as politicians about picking and choosing what drugs get funded."

And the Prime Minister's not happy Luxon wants to pillage his free-prescription policy.

"It's another smoke and mirrors policy from National. They want to take medicine off one group of New Zealanders and give it to another group of New Zealanders," Hipkins said.

As for whether Labour will fund these 13 drugs as well, Hipkins wouldn't say. Which means: watch this space.