Why can’t we afford Herceptin?

Pharmac’s announcement it won’t fund 12 month courses of Herceptin for women with aggressive Her-2 breast cancer has been labelled a cruel blow by Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition chair, Libby Burgess.

Ms Burgess said it was “unbelieveable and shameful” that New Zealand women were denied the standard of care offered elsewhere.

“It’s a bad outcome, but we’re not terribly surprised by it. But we are of course extremely disappointed.

“This is a cruel blow for women and their families. Phamac’s continuing refusal to fund the treatments New Zealanders need is simply inhumane.”
Ms Burgess said that, to access the 12 month treatment their doctors were recommending, women had to fundraise the tens of thousands of dollars needed. 

“This adds huge stress and suffering for women when they most need support and comfort … I am amazed Government hasn’t stepped in to end this inhumane treatment of our women.

“Increased funding for medicines including Herceptin will surely become an election issue. That will give voters the opportunity to decide.

Pharmac chief executive Matthew Brougham said the cost wasn’t the reason the drug won’t be funded.

“I want to be absolutely clear; this decision is not about the cost of Herceptin. This decision rests solely on the science and our assessment, our confidence, around whether or not funding 12 months treatment with Herceptin would produce additional health benefits.”

But he also said:

[Pharmac]  had to consider all illnesses and treatments, not just cancer, and had to make a decision with limited funds about what would bring the greatest benefits.

“It’s not about who can scream the loudest and make the most noise.”

When I was a health board member a doctor told me that when he first started going to international conferences he rarely encountered anything which wasn’t available in New Zealand. But gradually we’ve slipped behind other first world countries and at all the conferences he attended recently he found equipment, treatment or medication which we couldn’t afford.

That conversation took place at least four years ago. Today’s announcement by Pharmac that it won’t fund 12 month courses of Herceptin for women with aggressive Her-2 breast cancer indicates the situation hasn’t improved.

National’s associate health spokeswoman, Dr Jackie Blue, says women have been let down by the decision.

“The sheer weight of evidence supporting 12 months is overwhelming. Cancer specialist groups and even Pharmac’s own cancer specialist committee backed the 12-month course.”Even Medsafe refused to register the nine-week Herceptin course due to a lack of clinical evidence.”

Dr Blue, a former breast physician, says 33 countries now fund 12 months Herceptin as the standard of care.
“It’s totally incomprehensible that the Government’s drug-buying agency is persisting with this sub-optimal and unproven nine-week course.”

Dr Blue can confirm that a National Government will free up funds to fund the full 12-month Herceptin programme.

“Women with breast cancer need certainty and reassurance that they will have access to the international standard of care that will give them the best chance of beating this disease.”



Remember this  from the 1999 election campaign?

Helen Clark defended Labour’s plan to raise personal tax on earnings above $60,000, saying she had lost count of the number of people who had said they did not mind paying more tax if it was spent on health and education.

But Labour took far more tax than it has needed and spent too much of it on the wrong things. If we want first world health services we need a first world economy and that needs policies which promote economic growth not those which concentrate on redistribution.

7 Responses to Why can’t we afford Herceptin?

  1. Roxburgh Blue says:

    Cancer is an illness that nowdays there are a range of medical interventions that are available
    The battle ove herceptin has gone on for far too long. Its very strange that Labour has resisted that which 33 other countries have been part of.
    One thing that can be offered to patients is hope and that doesnt come in a bottle with a 12 month perscription


  2. […] today asks the poignant question “Why can’t we afford Herceptin?” Pharmac announced that it is not changing its decision to fund only nine weeks of the […]


  3. Inventory2 says:

    So Pharmac has received better advice than any of the countries that fund 12 months Herceptin treatment? Given that Pharmac has said that cost was not the overriding factor, this seems to me to be a very poor decision by Pharmac.


  4. Ed Snack says:

    The trouble with these issues is that politics and health get too intertwined. The actual evidence that a 12 month course is superior to a 9 week course is not strong despite I2’s assertion. Other country’s actions are not scientific evidence. It is also not discussed that Herceptin can have significant and serious side effects including cardiac toxicity.

    I suggest a quick read of : http://gilliansanson.wordpress.com/2007/03/30/herceptin-facts/. This provides a starting point for further research, but at first glance it confirms Pharmac’s view, that the 9 week course has an effective an outcome as a 12 month course. So why pay for 43 weeks of ineffective treatment ?

    This sort of health issue is too serious to use as a political football. Pharmac has some serious issues and is not always right, but I would prefer to judge the issue on science not emotion. That way does produce the best outcome for those most concerned, the patients.


  5. […] on my previous post  on the issue are also divided with Ed Snack saying it is important to judge the issue on science […]


  6. katbur says:

    The standard of care here in the U.S. is 12 months of treatment and then additional treatment as warranted by the condition of the patient, recurrence, resistance, etc. Best of luck in your fight!


  7. […] economics of this are all wrong. See MacDoctor’s excellent post here. Homepaddock wrote here. Chicane 9 August […]


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