VHI move to widen access to cancer drugs a ‘commercial decision’

Minister says public and private patients will have access to same drugs in State hospitals

Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times.

Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times.


Minister for Health Simon Harris has said he was not informed in advance that the State-owned health insurer VHI intended to provide wider access for its subscribers to some cancer drugs than can be availed of by public patients.

Mr Harris said it was a commercial decision made by the company.

However, he said there would be no differentiation in the level of access to cancer drugs between public and private patients in public hospitals.

“We do not treat patients in our public hospitals in any different way regardless of whether they have private health insurance or not,” he said. “You have the same range of access to the same range of drugs and treatment whether you are a public patient or a private patient in a public hospital.”

Last week VHI wrote to oncologists saying it would provide wider access to cancer drugs, including Pembrolizumab, for stage three melanoma, and Pertuzumab (Perjeta) for patients with early stage breast cancer.

The move is seen as disrupting the traditional equality of access for public and private patients for such treatments.


Mr Harris said he wanted to preside over a health service in time that was universal in terms of access. He said that was what the proposed Sláintecare health reforms intended to deliver.

The Minister was speaking after a “transformative” HSE food, nutrition and hydration policy for adult patients in acute hospitals was announced.

He said the new policy aimed to ensure that all adult patients in acute hospitals received a patient-centred food and nutrition service from their admission to discharge. The one-size-fits all model of providing food for patients in hospitals did not work, he said.

“We know patients have diverse nutritional needs and we know food can play such a major role in helping patients to recuperate from an illness,” he said.

“We know one-in-four patients in hospitals come in malnourished or on their way to malnourishment, so the idea that you would treat every patient the same regardless of their health profile is definitely something of the past .”

He said patients would be screened on their way into hospital “from a nutritional point of view” and asked for theri weight, medical condition and what food they need, with meals then provided on that basis. This would be applied rather than all patients being given identicial meals at same time every day.