Mixed reaction to Government's cancer care plan from advocates

The AM Show 02/09/2019

The Government's newly announced cancer care plan has received a mixed reaction from those who see the effects of the disease on a daily basis.

On Sunday, the Government unveiled its 10-year plan to tackle cancer, which includes giving Pharmac major funding, setting up a new national cancer agency, and developing cancer-specific quality-performance indicators.

While the amount spent on cancer drugs by Pharmac nearly doubled between 2011 and 2017, more Kiwis are being diagnosed with cancer. 

The current Government has made several funding injections into Pharmac, but Sunday's $60 million investment over two years is being described as just a "small drop in the ocean" compared to what is needed.

Malcolm Mulholland, a cancer care advocate and whose wife, Wiki, is suffering from breast cancer, says New Zealand is falling behind other countries.

It is just a small drop in the ocean.

"We need to double the budget in quick time, because whilst we muck around and do nothing about it, the rest of the world continues to march on in terms of the drugs that they fund," he told The AM Show on Monday.

"If we look at the waiting list overall, we know that there are over 100 drugs, all of these drugs proven to have worked, but we are not seeing any response from the Government."

Blair Vining, who suffers from cancer and has been vocal about the need to set up a cancer agency, told The AM Show that the new plan doesn't tick all the boxes, but it was a good start.

"There was a few things in there that we would have liked, like the bowel screening to be lowered to 50 and to be put out across the whole country as fast as it can, because at the moment it is slowly making its way down, and those people are still missing out down the bottom of the South Island," he said.

"I have to go to Dunedin which is just under a three-hour drive for my treatments.

"I really do think where we are heading now is better than what we were the other day. That extra money will help out. I hope they get the drugs for bowel cancer because that's obviously the one I have got."

Pharmac has a budget of $995 million for medicines, with 16 new cancer medicines funded between 2011/12 and 2017/18. The amount of money Pharmac spends on cancer medicines has been increasing every year and currently sits at about $220 million.

But the $20 million announced on Sunday to be injected into Pharmac this year would only be about a ten percent increase - and that's if all of it is spent on cancer medicines. 

Some of the money will go towards other illnesses. It's estimated about 60,000 people overall will benefit from Sunday's announcement.

Health Minister Dr David Clark told The AM Show he doesn't know how much of the money will go towards cancer due to Pharmac's model, but it will "absolutely" save lives.

"This is something we are investing in to make sure all New Zealanders can have access to have the same high-quality cancer care no matter where they are in New Zealand. That is our overall goal. There is no doubt this will require further investment over time," he told The AM Show.

"We will continue to spend more money. We announced $10 million in the Budget just gone, $20 million now, $40 million next year, this is going to grow."

Vining said he's met with Dr Clark on several occasions and believes he genuinely wants to help. 

"I have met with David Clark a couple of times and he really does genuinely care and he has put people in place to make sure there is accountability in the DHBs."

Professor Diana Sarfati has been appointed as the interim National Director of Cancer Control and said the new national cancer agency will help in providing centralised leadership.

"It is really exciting that they want to get underway right now. My opportunity is to get the work moving because people have got cancer now. The issues are now," she told The AM Show.

We have been a little weak in cancer control for quite some time in New Zealand.

"The last cancer control strategy was back in 2004 and there has been a narrowing of focus of cancer over that time."

"We have had regional cancer network, we have had DHBs kinda doing its own thing. Fantastic people out there doing amazing work, but you need to have some central leadership."

She also welcomed news that Pharmac will speed up its decision-making processes by considering applications for funding at the same time as Medsafe assesses the safety of new medicines.

"I think it's fantastic that Pharmac has greater investment. I also think it's fantastic that they are looking at their processes to make them quicker, and clearer, and more transparent," she said.

"What you need to deliver world-class treatment in any country is a really good structured, strongly led approach, which is what we have now. This is what the plan and this new structure will deliver."

The AM Show / Newshub reporter Jamie Ensor