Drug capsulesIn a fantastic and timely piece of news for thousands of people with cancer, the health secretary Alan Johnson has announced a package of measures that will greatly increase the availability of new cancer drugs in England and Wales.

We believe that this announcement is great news for patients and their families, as it deals with some of the long-running and controversial issues that have dominated headlines over the last year.

Here’s a run-down of some of the most significant parts of what’s been announced.

A significant raise in the ‘cost per QALY’ threshold for drug approval

NICE, the organisation which decides on the cost-effectiveness of new drugs, does so according to a mathematical model that assesses the cost per ‘quality adjusted life year‘ (‘QALY’ – essentially a measure of length and quality of life added by the drug), and compares this to a predetermined threshold.

If the ‘cost per QALY’ is higher than the threshold, the drug doesn’t get approved. Cancer Research UK and others have long argued that the current threshold (currently set at £30,000) is too low for small patient groups, such as people with rare cancers. This has meant patients have been denied access to treatments on the NHS that would extend and improve their lives.

Today the Government announced that they’ll be raising this threshold for drugs which treat people at the end of their lives and which are suitable for treating small numbers of people, for example people with rarer cancers. This will mean many new drugs will be approved to treat rarer cancers.

This is fantastic news.

The Government will adopt new, flexible pricing systems for more cancer drugs

Alongside increasing the NICE threshold for certain types of drugs, importantly the Government has also announced that it will take action to reduce the costs of some of these new medicines, at least initially. It will allow the pharmaceutical industry to adopt more flexible pricing for new medicines.

For example, a company would agree to price a new drug low to begin with, but, as it begins to be delivered on the NHS and used to treat more and more patients, and evidence of its effectiveness increased, the company would be allowed to increase the price.

Measures such as this should help reduce the overall cost of new drugs and make sure that patients have access to new drugs quickly.

The Government will not withdraw NHS treatment from people who opt to pay for ‘unapproved’ drugs

The issue of ‘top up fees’ or co-payments has been a burning issue all year. The debate is simple – the Government has taken a stance that it will not allow patients to pay for treatments and yet still be treated by the NHS.

This is understandable, as there are genuine fears that this would allow a ‘two-tier’ health system where the wealthy get the best treatment.

Today the Government has reversed its stance and will allow patients to pay for treatments otherwise denied them by the NHS on cost grounds.

Now, we share concerns about a two-tier health system, but given the action being taken on the NICE process and on drug pricing outlined above, we believe that most patients will now get access to effective new drugs on the NHS, and the issue of ‘top-up’ treatments remains an issue for only a very much smaller number of people.

Where top-ups are still relevant, it will be extremely important that patients are given all the information they need to make the decision about whether they want to pay for their treatment.

The bottom line

Taken together, these new policies represent a substantial piece of good news for patients and their families. We have long argued that, despite the great work the NHS and NICE does, there remain errors and inconsistencies in the way access to new drugs is regulated in the UK.

Today’s announcements should go a long way to correcting these problems.

What we now need to ensure is that the changes are delivered in a timely and effective manner – every further day of delay is a day when people aren’t getting the treatments they need.

And we should also remember that drugs are not the whole story. The UK Government needs to address other issues with access to care, such as diagnostics and radiotherapy.

Today is a giant, significant step forward in the still longer journey towards beating cancer.


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