7 Jun 2024

"Every minute counts" in National's cancer commitment clean-up

From Focus on Politics, 7:00 pm on 7 June 2024
A composite graphic showing Christopher Luxon, Nicola Willis and Shane Reti against a backdrop of images related to cancer drugs and funding.

Photo: RNZ / Jayne Joyce

"Every minute counts in the battle against cancer" - Christopher Luxon (21 August 2023)

Government ministers hoping to bask in a post-Budget glow this week have instead been trying to tamp down the backlash to a big broken promise.

The clock is now ticking for the coalition to correct its failure to fund 13 potentially life-extending cancer treatments.

This fiasco can be traced back to National's initial campaign promise last August - $70m a year, starting this year, for 13 specific cancer treatments. The funding was accounted for in the party's fiscal plan which both coalition partners signed. NZ First's agreement even specifies "giving Kiwis access to 13 more cancer treatments" as part of the policy programme.

On Budget Day, however, there was no sign of the promised funding

"We regret that it hasn't been possible in this Budget," Finance Minister Nicola Willis said.

Willis cited "significant challenges with the policy" given it overrode Pharmac's independence.

"Regardless, our government is committed to delivering on this policy through future Budgets."

The backlash came swiftly, as cancer patients appeared on TV and radio saying they felt "let down", their "hope wiped away" by a clear broken promise in circumstances that are "literally life and death". 

Willis that evening told RNZ's Checkpoint: "I don't think anyone expects that we would tick off every single campaign commitment in our first Budget. We've got two more Budgets to go."

By the next morning, she was speaking with more urgency, promising an announcement "very soon".

On Morning Report on Tuesday, Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said work was underway on a solution which would be made public "as quickly as we can".

Read more: 

That announcement is expected any time before Christmas, but when the actual funding might eventuate remains a mystery. 

Dr Reti initially told the NZ Herald the drugs would not be funded till next year at the earliest, but then later refused to repeat that to other media, declining to give any timeframe.

Potential options for the government include: demanding Pharmac fund the identified treatments; setting up another body to fund the drugs or equipping the Cancer Control Agency to do so; or simply supercharging Pharmac's funding.

All carry their own complications: the first setting a dangerous and costly precedent, the second setting up two parallel drug-funding models, and the third unlikely to deliver that exact list of 13. 

No easy solutions when talking life-and-death promises.

In this week's Focus on Politics, Deputy Political Editor Craig McCulloch takes a closer look at National's broken cancer commitment - and considers how the government could put it right.

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