By: Lucy Bennett

Labour and New Zealand First MPs have voted against a select committee inquiry into Pharmac despite desperate pleas from women with advanced breast cancer.

Malcolm Mulholland, the husband of Wiki Mulholland who has breast cancer, was at Parliament today to hear the outcome of the vote.

He was devastated to learn that Labour MPs had voted against the motion from National MP Michael Woodhouse at the health select committee.

He didn’t know how he was going to tell his wife of 20 years, who was one of a number of women with advanced breast cancer who have made emotional pleas over the past few weeks to the committee to push Pharmac to fund two drugs – Ibrance and Kadcyla – and hold an inquiry into the Government’s drug-buying agency.

“I’m just gutted,” he said.

Struggling to control his emotions, Mulholland read from a prepared statement.

“I’m deeply saddened by today’s decision by Labour not to support an inquiry into Pharmac.

“The result of this decision is that people with advanced cancer, including breast cancer, will die sooner than they should. Why? Because the New Zealand system of funding drugs is broken.”

He said the committee’s chairwoman, Labour MP Louisa Wall, had told him an inquiry into Pharmac would be launched and that all Labour members supported it.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has also said she would not stand in the way of an inquiry if the select committee opted to hold one.

But Mulholland said Wall told him February that Health Minister David Clark was blocking an inquiry.

“Dr Clark has repeatedly said Pharmac is a great model and there should be no inquiry despite members of his own party who have heard first-hand compelling evidence in support of an inquiry into Pharmac disagreeing with his position,” Mulholland said.

He said that showed political interference in the process.

In a statement, Clark reiterated that he did not believe an inquiry into the Pharmac model was necessary.

“Pharmac is a world-class funding model and the reason New Zealanders pay some of the lowest prices in the world for pharmaceuticals, and that means more people can get access to the drugs they need.

“The health committee will have been aware of my views but it makes its own decisions. I respect the role select committees play as a watchdog on ministers and I would never interfere with their independence,” he said.

Ibrance is available to women in Malaysia at around $2000 per month. In New Zealand, where it is not funded by Pharmac, it costs around $6000 per month.

Mulholland estimated it would cost $4-5 million a year to fund Ibrance for the 150 women who needed it.

The health select committee is currently considering a petition signed by close to 34,000 people calling for Pharmac to fully fund Ibrance and Kadcyla.

Ibrance, when taken in conjunction with other drugs, can inhibit the progress of breast cancer and potentially prolong the life of the patient, clinical trials show.

Australia announced last week that Ibrance would be publicly funded there.

Wiki Mulholland told the health committee last month that Ibrance had been hailed as a “game-changer” around the world which could be used for first and second line treatment.

“We’re not asking for a medical decision, we’re asking for leadership on this issue and you to prioritise our right to live by calling an urgent inquiry into Pharmac so that hopefully there can be change to an outdated system.”

She questioned why women had to go to Malaysia or move to Australia or the UK to access cheaper life-extending drugs.

Wall said at that time that the committee had the sole responsibility for reviewing the performance of Pharmac and if it was performing badly, “that, from our perspective, is something that we have to take incredibly seriously”, she said.

Malcolm Mulholland also wrote to the Māori Affairs select committee calling for an inquiry because Māori were disproportionately affected by Pharmac’s funding decisions.

The Māori Affairs committee has already announced it will hold an inquiry into the health system and its effects on Māori.

Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt has previously said the agency understood patients, their families and whānau wanted the newest medicines in the hope they would provide the best possible health result, but Ibrance and Kadcyla were just two of many medicines Pharmac was considering for funding.

“While some medicines may be available in other countries, the funding and
reimbursement systems are often not comparable. New Zealand must make its own decisions, carefully assessing the available evidence and thinking about medicines use in the New Zealand health context.”

Drug companies Pfizer and Roche, which make Ibrance and Kadcyla respectively, are awaiting a decision by the Pharmacology and Therapeutic Advisory Committee on whether their application for Pharmac funding has been successful.

That decision is due in May.

Source: NZ Herald

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