Drug scheme millions could end 'disgrace' of cancer postcode lottery
Health Minister Edwin Poots has been challenged to explain where millions of pounds received from a prescription drug scheme are being spent, when the cash could be used to obtain cancer medication that is currently unavailable.
Campaigners believe the money could help end the postcode lottery terminally-ill patients in Northern Ireland face when trying to access cancer drugs.
Terminal ovarian cancer patient Una Crudden has denounced as "shameful" the fact that despite Northern Ireland's position as a world leader in cancer research, there are still people here who can't obtain medication that could save them.
"We are good enough to be in clinical trials," she said. "But when it comes to a person who is not involved in a trial accessing drugs that could extend their life, they can't get them. But if they lived in London they could. It is a disgrace. People are dying."
Currently, patients here cannot be prescribed a number of potentially life-lengthening drugs that other people living in the rest of the UK can receive.
For women diagnosed with ovarian cancer, there are currently 38 drugs that are not available. Campaigners believe that creating a cancer fund similar to schemes in England, Wales and Scotland would call a halt to the health postcode lottery.
It had been suggested that bringing in a £3 prescription charge could support a cancer drug fund.
However, another proposal is that money could already be available in Northern Ireland to pay for the innovative new drugs through an agreement known as the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS).
The PPRS agreement controls the prices of branded drugs sold to the NHS.
The Department of Health has confirmed that £2.8m was returned to Northern Ireland through the scheme in the last financial year, but it said it could not say where the funds were allocated as "the Department does not collect it in this format".
Una said there needs to be clarity over where the money is being used.
"If there is money that is supposed to go into funding new drugs then we should know how much, where is it going and if the drugs are available to everyone," she insisted.
A Cancer Drugs Fund was set up by the UK Government in 2010. A total of 36 treatments have been made available only to people living in England. The fund, which costs £200m a year, led to a total of 42,000 patients in England benefiting.
Cancer patients here have to apply through an Individual Funding Report for any of the drugs on the list. Only one-in-eight who does apply is successful.