How can a cancer drugs fund, set up to save people’s lives, be divisive? Because, critics say, it prioritises a select group of seriously ill patients over others, whose deaths are considered less politically problematic.
The cancer fund, which David Cameron plans to extend to 2016 with another £400m of public money, allows doctors to prescribe drugs even where they have been judged “poor value for money” by the UK’s national (English and Welsh) medicines advisory body. Value for money can mean, in its starkest terms: will this expensive drug save someone from cancer ... or prolong their life by a few weeks or months? When the Coalition created the fund, it meant fewer doctors had to tell patients the appalling news that, “Yes, there is a way we could let you live longer, but we won’t, because it’s just too pricey, sorry.”
Happy news? Undoubtedly for the 34,000 patients who have benefited so far, and their families and friends. But some doctors say the cancer drugs fund is “the triumph of political expediency over rationality… the product of opportunism and intellectual incoherence”. Strong words.
What’s the real cancer killer here? Eye-watering profiteering from pharmaceutical firms, I say. Pharma research costs are high, competition is fierce, firms have a duty to shareholders to deliver profits, and their products are allowing more and more people with diseases once fatal to look forward to near-normal life expectancy. But treatments cost tens of thousands of pounds per patient per year – and there are plenty of examples of drugs prices going up as the production costs come down, once firms see they’ve captured the market. Time for a £500bn global industry to charge fairer prices.