Seasons Magazine, June 2016

Friday, June 3, 2016

Boosting funding for cancer treatment

In the final years of his life, my father had regular operations to remove minor skin cancers, and recently my mother has had two operations to remove a melanoma, so I have been following the recent public discussion over how we treat this disease, and the moving stories of New Zealanders who are most critically affected by it, with considerable interest and sympathy.

I’m sure we are all conscious of the damaging effects the sun’s rays can cause to our skin, and the importance of applying sunscreen, and wearing a hat and shirt when in the sun.  Unfortunately, as a nation, we haven’t always been so sun-smart, and sunburn used to be a very common occurrence.  As a child I remember trying to get as tanned as I could each summer!

This is one reason why New Zealand has a high rate of melanoma cancer. So I was delighted to hear a new generation melanoma drug is likely to be funded by Pharmac after a $39 million boost for the drug-buying agency's purchasing power was confirmed for next year in the recent Budget.

To enable Pharmac to provide more New Zealanders with access to new medicines, this year’s Budget saw Pharmac's funding boosted by $124 million over four years, with DHBs also intending to allocate an extra $11 million towards Pharmac's budget next year.

This will take Pharmac’s budget for 2016/17 to a record $850 million, an increase of $200 million since 2008.

Last year over 70,000 New Zealanders benefited from 41 new and widened-access medicines. Around 3.5 million New Zealanders received a funded medicine in 2014/15 – 100,000 more than the previous year.

At any one time, Pharmac has a list of proposals for new medicines and medical devices which medical experts have recommended as a priority for any funds that become available through savings or budget increases.  As Health Minister Dr Jonathan Coleman noted recently, “Pharmac works within a fixed budget and has to make tough decisions. It looks for the best health gains for the greatest number of New Zealanders.”

Pharmac has opened consultations on seven new treatments across a range of health areas, including Opdivo, a drug for advanced melanoma.

Like the more widely-publicised Keytruda, Opdivo takes the same biological approach, which has been described as "taking the brakes off the immune system". Both drugs interfere with a tumour's ability to hide from the immune system, allowing the immune system to get on with its job of recognising and killing cancer cells.

Following the funding boost by the Government, and in addition to Opdivo (nivolumab) for advanced melanoma, Pharmac is also consulting on Harvoni and Viekira Pak for hepatitis C infection; Azithromycin for bronchiectasis in children; Temozolomide for brain tumours and neuroendocrine tumours; Rituximab for nephrotic syndrome in children and Oestradiol patches for menopausal women.

It’s pleasing to see good progress is being made around the country to secure further improvements in cancer care and support services.

Every year more than 20,000 New Zealanders are diagnosed with cancer and this number continues to increase as the population ages.

A cancer diagnosis is a difficult time for many people and their families. Ensuring they have access to good psychological and social support can make a big difference.

That’s why in 2014 the Government made $4.5 million available each year to fund additional psychologists and social workers to support people with cancer across the country.

Six lead psychologists have been appointed at each of the six regional cancer centres, including our own Waikato DHB.

The initiative is part of the Faster Cancer Treatment programme, a key focus of which is the new 62-day faster cancer treatment health target. By July this year, 85 per cent of patients are to receive their first cancer treatment within 62 days of being referred with a high suspicion of cancer. This will increase to 90 per cent by June 2017.

Most of us have been touched by cancer, if not personally, then within our immediate circles of family and friends.  That’s part of what makes the annual “Relay for Life” such an important and moving event, and it’s why I welcome these improved services as a vital component of the Government's commitment to ensuring better, faster cancer care for all New Zealanders.