Calls for new government to give faster access to life-saving drugs

Pharma group says eight cancer therapies awaiting HSE approval for over 900 days

Drug companies have called on political leaders to prioritise faster access to life-saving medicines under any new government as controversy arose over another cancer patient denied access to medicine.

Mother-of-three Maria Waters has been forced to find €36,000 to fund treatment for her advanced head and neck cancer because neither the Health Service Executive nor her insurer, Irish Life Health, would fund the therapy.

Now the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (Ipha), which represents R&D-based, mostly big, pharma companies, has disclosed that eight separate cancer therapies are languishing in a queue of 23 medicines waiting for approval for more than 900 days.

Tuesday is World Cancer Day and the industry group has again highlighted what it says is an approvals system that is "among the slowest in Europe". Patients in Ireland are waiting three times as long to get the same medicines, including cancer drugs, as patients in other comparable European countries, Ipha alleges.


Irish made

The companies affected are understood to include many of the biggest drug companies worldwide, all of whom employ significant numbers of people in Ireland.

It is understood that one of the drugs involved is pembrolizumab, known as Pembro or Keytruda, which is made by MSD, the drug Ms Waters is having to pay for out of her own pocket. It has been approved in Ireland for some cancers but not others, including the one affecting her.

Minister for Health Simon Harris short-circuited the approvals process to make Pembro available "on an exceptional basis" to all women with cervical cancer late in 2018, having previously been sanctioned for the 221 women affected by the CervicalCheck controversy.

"Even though all the medicines have completed the full pharmacoeconomic process and some have received reimbursement approval, funding has not been made available, preventing access by patients," Ipha said of the medicines that have been in the queue since late 2017. "This compares to an average of 289 days from the date of European Medicines Agency licensing in 10 other European countries in which the medicines are available."

Oliver O’Connor, Ipha chief executive, said any new programme for government should adopt an explicit policy on how to allocate funding to new medicines.

"On World Cancer Day, we are urging politicians and policymakers to work with the industry to solve the funding and access problem so that patients and their clinicians can get the same range of new medicines, including cancer drugs, as their peers in other western European countries," he said.

Cancer is now the most common cause of death in Ireland, according to the National Cancer Registry.

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle

Dominic Coyle is Deputy Business Editor of The Irish Times