Cancer U-turn: Coalition mends National's broken promise with 54 new drugs funded

In a major U-turn, the Coalition Government has announced it will not only fulfil National's promise of funding 13 cancer drugs but extend the funding to an additional 41 medicines.

However, not all of the treatments will be available as soon as cancer patients hoped.

Health Minister Dr Shane Reti and Associate Health Minister David Seymour announced on Monday the Government will spend $604 million to fund 54 new medicines - made up of 26 cancer drugs and 28 other treatments.

Pharmac estimates around 175,000 people will benefit from the additional medicines in the first 12 months, Dr Reti said.

"Today we are delivering on the therapies we promised and more, with an unprecedented and transformative investment in cancer and other treatments," Dr Reti said.

"This will be a mix of new medicines and widened access to medicines that are already available."

The additional cancer treatments announced today have not been named, however, the Government said they include medicines for blood cancers and other tumours. The other treatments could cover infections, respiratory conditions, osteoporosis, sexual health, dermatology, inflammatory conditions, and mental health.

It confirms discussion last week that an announcement on the cancer drug funding was imminent.

National promised to fund the drugs in its election campaign, causing widespread condemnation when the funding was missing in this year's Budget.

The treatments, which are already offered in Australia, help battle liver, lung, bowel, bladder, kidney, head and neck cancers, as well as melanoma.

These treatments were expected to be available this year, however, some will instead be phased in over the next year.

Of the 13 promised cancer drugs, there are seven that will be included in the package announced today. The Government expects these treatments to be available from October/November this year.

They include:

  • Atezolizumab with bevacizumab for liver cancer
  • Axitinib for kidney cancer – second-line therapy
  • Cetuximab or panitumumab for bowel cancer – first-line therapy
  • Nivolumab for kidney cancer – second-line therapy
  • Osimertinib for lung cancer – first-line therapy
  • Osimertinib for lung cancer – second-line therapy
  • Pembrolizumab for bladder cancer

As for the remaining six, they will be replaced by alternatives "just as good or better" and will be phased in over the next year.

"This approach allows the Government and Pharmac to act on updated clinical advice, funding new and more effective treatments which have superseded previous options," Seymour said.

Pharmac will receive $604 million in funding from the Government to pay for the new medicines, which is a precommitment against next year's Budget. Further funding to deliver and administer the new treatments will be available to Pharmac and Health New Zealand.

In comparison, National expected the 13 cancer drugs to cost $280 million over four years. It was supposed to be funded by reinstating the $5 prescription payment but instead the money went towards what the Government has described as a "fiscal cliff" in Pharmac's Budget, causing it to cough up an extra $1.77 billion over four years to fix the shortfall.

"For many New Zealanders, funding for pharmaceuticals is life or death, or the difference between a life of pain and suffering or living freely," Seymour said.

"It was a priority for this Government to find the additional $1.8 billion to fix the fiscal cliff left by the previous government, and we're now providing a $604 million uplift to Pharmac to ensure more Kiwis can access life-changing medicines."

'I apologise'

Health Minister Dr Shane Reti apologised on Monday for the communication around the cancer treatment funding.

"As a Government, I am very pleased to be able to provide certainty today following a process which we absolutely needed to get right," Dr Reti said.

"Again, I acknowledge that Government communication around this could have been clearer and I apologise for the uncertainty this has caused patients and their families."

The Government faced strong criticism for leaving out funding for National's 13 promised cancer drugs in Budget 2024.

In a press release alongside the Budget, Dr Reti said the Government prioritised "essential investment" - aka the Pharmac's shortfall funding - and anticipated that future Budgets would help widen medicine access, including to cancer treatments.

However, cancer patients expected those treatments to be funded this year. National's policy proposed the first of four funding boosts was to come in Budget 2024.

A week after the Budget, Dr Reti admitted the Government's communication surrounding the funding could have been better.

The announcement follows the Government's record $16.68 billion health package in Budget 2024. 

The Coalition has five key health targets which include faster cancer treatment, improved immunisation for kids, shorter stays in emergency departments, shorter wait times for first specialist assessment and shorter wait times for treatment.

Under its faster cancer treatment goal, the Government has set a target of 90 percent of patients to receive cancer management within 31 days of the decision to treat. It has also increased breast screening eligibility, funded PET scanning accessibility for prostate cancer, expanded infusion services in Whanganui, invested in a new radiotherapy machine at Whangārei Hospital and provided an extra $18 million a year to help people who need to travel for treatments like cancer.