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£3 prescription charge 'could pay for cancer fund'

By Victoria O'Hara

The introduction of a £3 prescription fee could pay for a multi-million pound cancer fund, enabling patients to receive drugs they are denied access to here, the Health Minister says.

By charging patients it could finance the £7m needed to establish a Cancer Drugs Fund – similar to the one in England – and address the drug inequality problem.

Currently at least 30 drugs are unavailable to people diagnosed with cancer here, but can be prescribed in England, which has led to campaigns to end the postcode lottery for treatment.

Mr Poots confirmed he will be reviewing the cancer drug approval process in Northern Ireland, which has been criticised by cancer sufferers as "unfair".

Campaigners and charities welcomed the proposals but said a "clear timeline" for a review was needed.

Mr Poots said he faced problems with a "limit of funding" in addressing the issue. He said: "I am determined to explore every opportunity available to me in terms of delivering increased access to specialist medicines." He was speaking on a DUP Assembly motion calling for a review into the accessibility of cancer drugs and to "provide greater clarity for patients trying to obtain funding" for the treatment.

Mr Poots said he had asked the review to evaluate the effectiveness of the current process and will be arranging discussions with clinicians in how they might be improved.

Currently, £40m a year is spent on cancer drugs for Northern Ireland patients – but campaigners say much more is needed.

Mr Poots said: "What we would need to equate to the English Cancer Drugs Fund is around £7m, so by charging £3 a prescription for those who were originally paying for prescriptions this would cover this Cancer Drug Fund."

However the Minister said he would want the fund to include rare disease drugs. Roisin Foster, Chief Executive of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland, said: "Patients do not want an open-ended review, they want decisive action to improve access to drugs."

Professor Mark Lawler, from the European Cancer Concord and Queen's University Belfast, said it was important to act quickly.

"We need the NI Executive to act now or else we will face significant problems in cancer outcomes."

During the debate MLAs noted the "irony" that drugs are being trialled in Northern Ireland–which is now considered a world leader in cancer research – but are not available to patients who live here.

Among the drugs not available on the NHS here is Avastin, which treats ovarian cancer.

Campaigner Una Crudden, who is terminally ill with the disease, said she would be in favour of the charge if it meant drugs would become accessible.

"I don't think people would object to a small prescription charge because somewhere down the line one in three will be diagnosed, so every family will be touched by cancer."

Speaking ahead of World Ovarian Cancer Day today, Ms Crudden said it was important to deal with the inequality.

CASE STUDY

Allister Murphy (57), from Newtownabbey, has terminal prostate cancer and has experienced first-hand the inequality of access to cancer drugs here. "In 2008, when I was first diagnosed, I was given two to three years to live. By taking part in two clinical trials I benefited from specialised cancer drugs that otherwise would have been unavailable to me, and that have added years to my life.

"Currently I'm undergoing a second bout of chemotherapy because I can't get access to new drugs like enzalutamide. If I lived in England I would be able to apply to the Cancer Drugs Fund for access to these drugs. I believe this is discriminatory."

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