Belfast Telegraph

Tele joins the fight to end postcode lottery that discriminates against NI patients

By Victoria O'Hara

Today the Belfast Telegraph throws its support behind demands for a Cancer Drug Fund to be launched in Northern Ireland and end the postcode lottery of treatment for patients.

Hundreds of people across the province who are diagnosed with cancer could have their lives prolonged if a fund was set up.

As highlighted in yesterday's newspaper, patients here like Nicola Russell diagnosed with incurable cancer are denied certain medication that could lengthen their lives.

There are 38 drugs available to patients in England not accessible in Northern Ireland because they are 'not recommended' by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice).

However, if Nicola (50), who has secondary cancer, lived in England, where a £200m drug fund operates to give access to unrecommended drugs, she could be prescribed the medication.

She said she is now considering moving to England for treatment.

Campaigners including charity Cancer Focus NI have called for urgent action to be taken by Health Minister Edwin Poots.

This newspaper is also supporting the call.

The charity said it was "unfair" families had been forced to pay thousands of pounds for treatment that others get free of charge in Britain.

One of the drugs not prescribed for free is Cetuximab, which treats colorectal cancer.

To receive it, patients in the province have to pay £1,860.50 every two weeks – but if they lived in England they would receive it free through the fund.

The decision to create a Cancer Drug Fund – which would cost an estimated £8m – is a devolved matter and must be approved by the Executive.

Now pressure is mounting on Mr Poots to create a similar fund. However, yesterday in the Assembly the minister reiterated that he needed to charge for prescriptions to pay for the fund and he needed the support of MLAs.

"Let us make it very clear: I do not have the money to buy those drugs," he said. "In the absence of the money, I want to charge something for prescriptions."

Ann Adair from east Belfast was diagnosed with ovarian cancer last year. The 54-year-old said action was needed now.

"The fund is needed as quickly as possible.

"What patients and their families are experiencing in order to get information and any potential life-saving drugs is simply unfair," she said.

The only way a patient in Northern Ireland can access unapproved drugs is through an individual funding request (IFR).

But Mr Poots is currently reviewing the process after the criteria, which requires the doctor to prove the case is "exceptional", was labelled too tough.

In June 2012 a report by the Rare Cancer Foundation estimated that the introduction of a similar policy here to that in England would benefit some 278 more patients at an annual cost of £5.78m a year, and equate to £3.20 per person every year.

Last month the Health Minister suggested that the reintroduction of a £3 prescription charge could pay for the fund.

He later suggested an annual £25 capped prescription charge could also pay for the fund.

But campaigners believe that money could be found in the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS).

The agreement controls the prices of branded drugs sold to the health service.

Around £2.8m was returned through a scheme in the last financial year. Addressing the Assembly yesterday, Mr Poots said he currently did not have the funds to buy the drugs and needed the support of the Assembly.

"Let us be very clear: we are talking about drugs that are not Nice-approved.

"The Prime Minister has decided to go down a particular route in England."

Mr Poots said the Welfare Reform Bill would address the financial pressures.

"There is £120m which, if we signed up to welfare reform, would be in the Northern Ireland budget. That would quickly deal with most of the problems I have."

But he reiterated his support for reintroducing prescription charges, saying: "It could mean a few pounds on the old scheme, in which only 11% of prescriptions were paid for, with a maximum cap or a charge of as little as 50p for all prescriptions, again with a maximum cap of £25 a year, for example, which would be 50p a week."

But the SDLP's Ferghal McKinney said action was needed now, stating: "The Health Minister continues to muddy the waters by involving prescription charges, welfare reform and disputing the potential of what is clearly an opportunity for cancer sufferers here. That is unacceptable."

A Cancer Drug Fund and what it would mean here

Q. What is the Cancer Drug Fund?

A. The Cancer Drug Fund is money Westminster set aside to pay for cancer drugs in England that haven't been approved by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) and unavailable in the NHS. The aim of the fund is to make it easier for people to get as much treatment as possible.

Q. Why is a Cancer Drug Fund not available in Northern Ireland?

A. The decision to create a Cancer Drug Fund is a devolved matter.

Q. How much would the fund cost?

A. Around £8m. The Health Minister Edwin Poots has stated that the re-introduction of prescription charges – either a £3 charge per script or an annual £25 'capped' charge –could pay for the fund. It is understood Sinn Fein and the SDLP are not in favour of re-introducing prescription charges. They believe it could be funded through the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS), which controls the prices of branded drugs sold to the health service and pharmaceutical industry. Around £2.8m was returned through a scheme in the last financial year.

Q. How can patients here access unrecommended NICE cancer drugs?

A. The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) has a process called the Individual Funding Request (IFR). A clinician makes an application. They must prove the patient is an "exceptional" case.

Q. What current action is the Health Minister Edwin Poots taking to help access?

A. The minister said "he does not have the money" to buy the drugs. A review of the IFR process is also taking place. The minister says he needs the support of all other political parties.

QHow many people here could benefit?

A. In June 2012 a report by the Rare Cancer Foundation estimates that 278 more patients would benefit, costing around £5.78m annually and equating to £3.20 per person every year.

Q. How does accessing the fund work in England?

A. Drugs not Nice-approved can be prescribed through a Drugs Cancer Fund in England. If the treatment is not funded by the NHS, a doctor checks if it is on the Cancer Drug Fund list of routinely funded treatments. If the patient matches the criteria funding will be confirmed within two working days.

Belfast Telegraph


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