21 Aug 2023

Watch: National promises to restore prescription fees for most, put savings towards cancer treatments

5:23 pm on 21 August 2023

National is promising to put $280 million towards cancer treatments, by restricting fee-free prescriptions to superannuitants and those on low incomes.

National Party member Dr Shane Reti

Shane Reti. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The money would be ringfenced for 13 different cancer treatments under Pharmac, and be paid out in $70m instalments over four years.

Party leader Christopher Luxon and Health spokesperson Dr Shane Reti announced the policy at Southern Cross Hospital in Auckland on Monday afternoon.

"Despite the hard work and dedication of New Zealand's trusted healthcare professionals, cancer survival rates here lag behind Australia, partially due to Australia's broader funding of cancer medicines," Luxon said.

"The cancer treatments will be available to all patients with clinical need, as assessed by their doctors."

"We are interested in lifting the cancer bar," added Reti. "Clinicians have told us they don't have the tools that they want or need to do that. Clinicians have told us that 1500 New Zealanders die a year for similar conditions where they might otherwise survive in Australia - we want to address that treatment gap."

The treatments include:

  • osimertinib for lung cancer, first- and second-line therapies
  • atezolizumab with bevacizumab for liver cancer
  • cetuximab or panitumumab for bowel cancer, first- and second-line therapies
  • nivolumab with ipilimumab for kidney cancer, first- and second-line therapies; for head and neck cancer
  • axitinib for kidney cancer - second-line therapy
  • pembrolizumab for bladder cancer
  • nivolumab or pembrolizumab for melanoma (adjuvant)
  • dabrafenib with trametinib for melanoma (adjuvant)
  • BRAF/MEK inhibitors for melanoma (unresectable).

Luxon said the allocation was a better use of taxpayers' money than Labour's universal approach to removing $5 prescription fees for everyone.

"Under National, superannuitants and those on low incomes will receive free prescriptions. For everyone else, the total amount any family will pay for prescriptions in a year will be capped at $100."

The treatments had been identified by New Zealand's Cancer Control Agency as providing significant clinical benefits, and they were funded in Australia but not New Zealand, he said.

"New Zealanders suffering from these cancers who have exhausted available treatments here in New Zealand currently face a really bleak choice - that choice either is to give up, or it's head overseas, or mortgage their home or try and raise a significant amount of money from friends and family to fund the treatment themselves.

"We want all cancer patients here in New Zealand to be armed with hope and positivity as they go through this battle against this terrible disease - not helplessness, not frustration and not desperation. National wants these New Zealanders to stay in New Zealand and to fight their cancer with the full support of a world-class health system.

"Every minute counts in the battle against cancer, and we want Kiwis to have access to better treatments here at home to give more of them the chance to beat cancer and get back to their normal lives."

Luxon said around 1000 New Zealanders a year would benefit from switching funding from universal free prescriptions to the 13 cancer drugs.

"It's National's view that there are so many health needs going unmet that an untargeted subsidy like that is going to people who frankly don't need it - people like myself or Chris Hipkins. It frankly isn't the best use of scarce health dollars."

Free prescriptions would still be available to those with a Community Services Card or a SuperGold Card, he said, while non-qualifying families would have fees capped at $100 a year.

Asked why seniors - who already get taxpayer-funded pensions regardless of their wealth or income - would still get free prescriptions, Luxon said it was the "cleanest way" to reach those who need them.

"It's a commitment that we've made, understanding that they will have health needs. We're doing everything through the lens of health needs… common sense, rather than politics."

He denied interfering in the independence of Pharmac's ability to choose what medicines to fund, saying the 13 treatments with ringfenced funding were identified by the Cancer Control Agency (out of 20 - five of which have since been funded, and two others ruled out, Luxon said).

None of the 13 treatments were for non-solid cancers like leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. Reti said this was because the Cancer Control Agency was yet to determine "treatment gaps" between New Zealand and Australia for those diseases.

"That's specifically why I said to those cohort of people, we haven't forgotten you."

'Smoke and mirrors' - Hipkins

Labour leader Chris Hipkins said the Pharmac budget did need to be increased but it should not be at the expense of free prescriptions.

"It's another smoke and mirrors policy from the National Party, they want to take medicine off one group of New Zealanders in order to give it to another group of New Zealanders," he said.

He said Labour's record spoke for itself, with its funding increases making it possible for the drug-buyer to fund 10 more cancer drugs.

"We've increased the Pharmac budget every year that we have been in government and we'll continue to do that, National on the other hand have prioritised tax cuts for millionaires.

"We set up the Cancer Control Agency to be an advocate, I note the National Party opposed setting up the Cancer Control Agency and are now using its advice to launch their policy from."

He said the free prescriptions was a "small thing that we can do that helps to keep people healthy that means they don't end up requiring more expensive healthcare".

Labour was not proposing to cut funding for other things to pay for a funding boost for Pharmac, he said, and politicians needed to be careful about picking which drugs got funded.

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