In the wake of the Welsh Assembly’s decision not to establish a Cancer Treatments Fund in Wales, Paul Head, Breakthrough’s Local Influencing Officer, explores the issue of access to drugs in the nation, and puts forward our views for short and long term solutions.
Thursday 13 November 2014      Policy and campaigns blog

Last week Welsh Assembly Members debated funding for cancer treatments and the Welsh Government faced calls to create a Cancer Treatments Fund, similar to the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF) available in England. The debate followed the presentation of a petition signed by almost 100,000 people calling for fairer access to cancer drugs.

As expected when discussing an issue where people have understandably strong feelings, things got lively. There were a number of well thought out and passionate contributions from Assembly Members but ultimately the motion, calling upon the Welsh Government “to establish a Cancer Treatments Fund for Wales”, was defeated.

With Welsh cancer patients currently unable to access some of the most effective, life-extending cancer drugs, drugs that are available to patients across the border in England through the CDF, the outcome was clearly disappointing.

A vital safety net

While the Health Minister, Mark Drakeford, did make a commitment to improve access to drugs through the Individual Patient Funding Request (IPFR) process, we do not believe it goes far enough for many cancer patients.

The CDF in England has helped thousands of breast cancer patients access ground-breaking new drugs that may not have been available to them otherwise. It has provided a vital safety net, enabling access to treatments that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) have not been able to approve for routine use on the NHS due to their hefty prices. Until the fundamental issue of the prohibitive pricing of these drugs is tackled, we need short-term solutions like the CDF in Wales.

Postcode lottery

It can’t be right that a person’s postcode dictates whether they can get access to life-extending drugs. We have heard about patients taking desperate measures to access the drugs that they need including paying many thousands of pounds to buy the treatments or obtaining an English address so they are able to register with an English GP and access drugs on the CDF. Some patients are travelling hundreds of miles from Wales to London to access the treatments they need.

In the last two years, three promising drugs for secondary breast cancer have been rejected for routine use in the NHS because of their high cost. These are drugs that can provide women not only with extra time, but with good quality time free from the side effects associated with less advanced treatments.

The first step towards a permanent solution

Breakthrough Breast Cancer is determined to stop breast cancer for good, and making sure every woman receives the treatment she needs is the first step. That’s why we've launched our Demand a Fair Price campaign. We're calling, in the short term, for drugs currently available on the CDF in England to be made available to anyone that needs them in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

However, the CDF can’t be, and was never intended to be, a long-term solution. It shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than a sticking plaster, papering over the cracks in a system that is no longer fit for purpose. In the long term, we want to see the pharmaceutical industry, the government and bodies such as NICE and the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group commit to developing a new system that allows drugs to be made available to the patients who need them at prices that the NHS can afford but are still fair to the pharmaceutical industry.

While it’s important for the Welsh Assembly to look seriously at how they make cancer drugs available in the short term, they must also put pressure on their colleagues in Westminster, as well as the pharmaceutical industry, to come together to find a permanent solution to the pricing issue so that we have a system that works for patients now and in the future.

Promising conversations

It was encouraging to hear many Assembly Members recognise this. . In particular, the comments from Keith Evans AM, where he advocated “responsible conversations, UK-wide, with the pharmaceutical industry over pricing” were promising. He went on to say, “That, while you cannot put a price on life, you can put a price on the cost of drugs”, a sentiment we at Breakthrough share fully.

Thanks to research breakthroughs, we’ve made huge advances in how we treat breast cancer and targeted drugs for secondary breast cancer are more effective than ever before. But these advances are being squandered if the resulting treatments can’t be approved for use by the women who stand to benefit from them.

Write to your MP to demand a fair price for life-extending drugs

Paul Head is Breakthrough’s Local Influencing Officer