If the government can rush to fund Herceptin, why not Tarceva, a drug for those suffering from more lethal lung cancer? One patient who's paying $2,000 per month just to stay alive speaks out

During the election campaign, government dollars were promised in record amounts to protect and improve the health of New Zealanders, and now within the first 100 days of the new administration, funding for the breast cancer drug Herceptin will be extended from nine weeks to a full year.
National’s health policy promised that New Zealanders would “have broader access to medicines and be able to get innovative new medicines, sooner” through a “boost [in] overall funding for medicines”. If you think that means a new level of fairness in the funding and running of our health system and medicines, think again.
Unfortunately, like a number of other New Zealanders, I have non-small cell lung cancer. The current best treatment for this is the drug, Tarceva. But while Tarceva is funded in England, America and Australia, as well as many countries in Europe, it is not funded in this country.
Why not? Peter Moodie, Medical Director for Pharmac, the government’s drug distribution arm, says that test results have not been conclusive enough and the drug had side effects. It’s a strange logic. During my four years with cancer I have been through a number of chemotherapy programmes and I say adamantly that there are a couple of fully-funded programmes where the side effects are far worse than Tarceva will ever be.
I am far from alone in my need for the drug. Statistics show a registration of approximately 1000 patients with cancer of the trachea, bronchus and lung per year during 2003, 2004 and 2005, compared to between 2200 and 2500 per year registered with cancer of the breast. But the mortality rate reported for breast cancer sufferers is much lower than those with cancers of the trachea, bronchus and lung over the same period of time. For example if we look at breast cancer in 2005, there were 2458 registrations and 647 deaths. For trachea, bronchus and lung cancer, there were 948 registrations and 1451 deaths.
The Ministry of Health is quite clear: “The leading cause of death from cancer in 2004 was cancer of the trachea, bronchus and lung”. This is surely proof that we should be putting more emphasis into the funding of drugs like Tarceva for lung cancer. If the government can find the money for Herceptin, why not Tarceva? National MP Jackie Blue has said of Herceptin funding that her party just wanted “to do the right thing”, while new Health minister Tony Ryall criticised the Labour government for spending millions on bureaucrats and not enough on medicines. The precedent is set, but will Ryall act?
Hang on, you might say, if you’ve got lung cancer it’s probably your own fault. Not so. As with many cancers, it is not known how lung cancer occurs, but it’s true that there’s a link to those who have smoked. I have never smoked. I did nothing to attract this disease. Adding to the unfairness of my situation is that if had contracted a sexually transmitted disease or AIDS – even a strange tropical disease while I was travelling the world – then the drugs given to combat these would be free.
The Auckland District Health Board’s chief oncologist, Dr Richard Sullivan has been battling for the inclusion of Tarceva on Pharmac’s list since its inception some four years ago. He has struggled in vain, largely because the cost of the drug is prohibitive.
I have been on Tarceva for 18 months and in the first year paid $4,400 per month for it. I have so far spent over $66,000 just to stay alive. This is simply outside the reach of most New Zealanders. It would be for me as well if I stopped working. So quite literally I now have to work to live.
Who is going to reimburse me? Who is going to keep my healthy? Does any political party care? Frankly, no.
During the election campaign, I heard no mention of how the government’s distribution arm, Pharmac, was to be revamped. Surely that’s a strange situation, as all parties have said that they are not happy with the way our drug dollar is spent, or wasted.
To my mind, Pharmac is in dire need of an overhaul. Our drug/health dollar is not getting to the New Zealanders that need it. There is a need to look at other ways of distributing this money so that it does support those with the greatest need.
I have written to Helen Clark and Health minister David Cunliffe and had no reply. My MP Wayne Mapp has written to Cunliffe, but to no avail. Roche Switzerland, manufacturers of the drug? No reply.
After some correspondence, I’m pleased to say we finally got a sensible response from Roche New Zealand, the distributors of the drug. To their credit, they have come to the party and reduced the cost by 50 percent. Nevertheless, we are still looking at $2,000 per month or $74 per pill.
My main gripe, and that of a number of other New Zealanders in my situation, is that Pharmac does not fund Tarceva, a drug that could save my life and a lot more lives besides if it were within the financial reach. While it’s extending my life, it is costing me a king’s ransom. So the question must be, “who should benefit from the distribution of our drug dollar?”.
It seems unfair to me that new immigrants get access to government funded drugs and healthcare when I don’t. The whole system seems wrong.
Do I get upset when the new immigrant in the hospital bed beside me needs an interpreter to explain what’s wrong and ends up with a bone marrow transplant paid for by my health dollar? I do.
Do I get upset when a colleague of mine, just arrived from South Africa, has to have a hip replacement, and its paid for by my health dollar? Yes, I do.
I am a New Zealander, have paid New Zealand taxes for nearly 50 years, still have a full time job and am still paying taxes. I have not claimed on any part of the welfare system. I have neither smoked, nor done anything to attract my disease. Surely in my hour of need I have a right to expect that my taxes be used to keep me healthy. Instead, I am left to put my hand into my own pocket just to stay alive. There are many other New Zealanders suffering the same plight and many don’t have the ability to pay. They will die. We need help.
Wayne Watkin is a Pundit member and cousin of the site's editor.

Comments (11)

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 20, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

Makes you really angry about all that money we blew on pledge cards, train sets, wananga rorts, gifts to the racing industry, comms staff for departments, vast departmental advertising campaignes before elections, Half a mil to Hamas, hip hop tours, the play "Hollow Men," student loan interest, $2mil or was it $3 mil to legitimise Ahmed Zaoui, Parliamentary research staff to dig dirt on Key and so on and so on and so on.

Let's hear no more nonsense about the fiscally prudent and responsible Clark Cullen regime.

You are paying the real price of Labour's profligacy.  I hope you have plenty of assets and extended family who will help out.


by Ian MacKay on November 20, 2008
Ian MacKay

Adolf: Of course every person in NZ should get the care that science can muster. But every dollar has to come out of a Budget somewhere. The incoming Govt has promised to over-rule the medical opinions at Pharmac. The Nats have promised to take money from the Health Budget and shift it over to Pharmac to spend on more medicines. $40mil becomes $60mil then I think over $100mil in due course. Therefore something  and someone else has to go without. Pharmac has warned that there is a flood of new medicines coming on the market. Who should choose which ones to budget for? The politicians? Really??

by Tim Watkin on November 20, 2008
Tim Watkin

It raises the interesting point of how the Taxpayers' Rights bill would impact a situation like this. As it stands, if Wayne can make his case the government could choose to spend more, earn more revenue to buy more medicines, or whatever. Given that new medicines are coming out all the time, it's a good example of growing need. But under the TRB, medicines would be capped like everything else. It really would be, as Ian says, someone else going without to pay for more medicine. An illustration about how scary and cruel that piece of potential legislation is.

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 20, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

Ian, I'd be quite sanguine about politicians having some say on what's what.  After all, if they screw up, they get voted out.  The drones at Pharmac just keep on aimlessly buzzing in their ivory towers with their computer models and high minded theory while the rest of the civilized world subsidises drugs these drongos think have deleterious side effects.  It seems to me death is a serious side effect which often is ignored.

by Bonnie Robinson on November 20, 2008
Bonnie Robinson

I am on medication that is very expensive. I had to apply via my specialist directly to Pharmac for approval and I live in fear that it might get taken away if I fail on my annual check up to meet all the requirements. The medicine keeps me well and keeps me working - I calculate that the amount I pay in tax probably equals the cost of my medication. It took years of lobbying by a non profit organisation to get the medication approved - despite evidence from overseas as to its effectiveness. However even with this experience of Pharmac, I would hate to see politicians decide what medicine gets funded and for whom. Doctors don't know everything, but they do know something, and I'd rather have the decision about medications based on some kind of logic, than politics and sentiment. If politicians get to decide then it really will become the battle of the lobbyists and those with the deepest pockets will win. But it would be great to see Pharmac more open and accountable and honest. If the reason they won't fund a medication is that we can't afford it let them say so. The funding is the political issue, not which drug. Let the politicians answer to the funding, but let medical and scientific people (with some patient input please), be the ones to decide what the funding is used for.

by Deemac on November 20, 2008

the sad truth is that you could spend the entire government budget - or even the entire GDP - on healthcare and there would still be shortages. The real scandal is the profiteering of the drug companies - not to mention the way they create demand for certain drugs (eg herceptin).

by Deemac on November 20, 2008

PS this is a serious site for grownups so rubbish like adolf's post has no place here - too many lies to even start correcting him, but that's the whole point of trolls like him, they want people to waste their time responding to nonsense.

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 22, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

Ian, you seem to have the view that politicians are inferior beings.  You need to be reminded that, unlike faceless public servants, they have to account for their actions and they pay a high price for getting serious decisions wrong.  They get thrown out.  Yes I'd be very happy indeed to see politicians have some say in the decisions on what is subsidised and to what level and what is not.  Probably a final review after all the drones have had their says and made their reports.

As for your colleague deemac, if he is what passes for adult, I hope I'm not subsidizing his bill for dementia care. I'm reminded of one of Australia's greatest ever orators, Gough Whitlam who, paraphrased, might have said "How dare you call me a troll, you troll!"

deemac resorts to the tired old canard of having too little time when in fact he has no real answers.  The sad fact is that the money which could have paid  for your writer's horrendous drugs bill and that of many other deserving citizens has been tossed down the drain of profligacy by an irresponsible and self centred regime for this past nine years.  That's why they have been voted out.

deemac just doesn't seem to understand that you can only spend a dollar once.  Neither does he appear to have any comprehension of what it costs drug companies to bring new products to market but that is another story.

by danniel on February 21, 2013

In an ideal world these people shouldn't be ill, in a good world these people shouldn't pay for this kind of treatmet. Unfortunately we don't live in an ideal or good world and that's the situation we're dealing with. They deserve better health care and more hope, how are we going to give that to them?

by on March 03, 2013

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by rickk on November 06, 2013

Sometimes it seems like we're constantly heading to worse times than before. I believe we should focus on a more constructive approach though. Health care has never been a perfect system, we just have to trust the potential of the system. Meanwhile, our main concern should be for us to stay healthy, there are some tips about that on this Surgery Millsboro Delaware source.

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