Cancer drugs prescription charge move ‘bizarre’

Health economists and opposition politicians have expressed bemusement at Gordon Brown’s decision to exempt cancer sufferers from prescription charges when patients are having to pay thousands of pounds for cancer drugs that the NHS will not fund.

“This seems a rather bizarre decision and a low priority when there are much more serious issues facing the NHS over cancer treatment,” said Adrian Towse, director of the Office of Health Economics, which is financed by the pharmaceutical industry.

It became clear on Wednesday that the prime minister’s announcement had not been fully costed. The final bill would depend on which other long-term conditions were eventually included in the scheme, said the Department of Health, adding that it still expected to raise £150m-£200m a year out of the £400m in revenue that prescription charges currently generated in England.

Almost 90 per cent of prescriptions are dispensed free of charge. Those who pay but need drugs regularly can buy a pre-payment certificate, or “season ticket”, that covers all their drugs for £27.85 for three months – the cost of four prescriptions.

Andrew Lansley, the Conservative health spokesman, said it was “absurd” that the government was exempting cancer suffers from a maximum £100 a year bill for their medicines “while patients who could benefit from clinically effective cancer drugs that may extend their lives are being expected to pay out tens of thousands of pounds for their treatment”.

Mike Richards, the cancer czar, is compiling data and reviewing the policy on such “top-ups” to NHS treatment. But initial health department estimates are understood to indicate that it would cost the NHS between £100m and £300m a year to cover the cancer drugs that it currently refuses to fund.

That is a similar sum to the amount the government now plans to spend extending the exemption to prescription charges.

“It does seem rather odd to focus on the prescription charge rather than the much more serious issue of whether patients will get access to expensive drugs or will have to pay for them themselves,” Mr Towse said.

Alan Maynard, professor of health economics at York University, said given the problems that the government faced with the public finances, “this seems a very strange set of priorities”.


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