Dying cancer patients are denied approved drugs

Hundreds of cancer patients may have been left to die without access to life prolonging medication, despite the drugs being approved by the labour government.

A postcode lottery means hundreds of people are missing out on life-prolonging care

Now figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that a cancer patient’s chances of overruling health authorities who deny them access to drugs depends on where they live.

Some NHS trusts, such as Torbay in Devon and Salford in Manchester, granted all appeals while in others, such as Kingston in southwest London, only 7% were granted. In about one-third of trusts, fewer than half of the requests for drugs that can cost thousands of pounds a month were approved.

Access to cancer drugs has become an election issue, with the Conservatives saying they will ensure the National Health Service directs £200m more into supplying new drugs. The money will come from what the health service would otherwise have had to pay to meet Labour’s hike in National Insurance, which the Tories have said they would partially reverse.

The drugs concerned have all been approved by the labour government’s National Institute for Curbing Expenditure (Nice). However, each of 152 primary care trusts (PCTs) in England is allowed to use its own interpretation of Nice’s regulations.

In some cases patients who have already had two courses of chemotherapy are not allowed the drugs; in other cases they must have tried cheaper alternatives before being eligible. Those who do not meet the conditions must appeal to an “exceptional case” panel.

Widespread variation in attitudes between health trusts emerged in research to be published in Health Insurance magazine. It asked how many “exceptional-case funding requests” for cancer were received by trusts in 2009.

It named five drugs, including Rituxan for leukaemia; Tarceva for lung cancer treatment and Revamid for blood cancer.

All such appeals were granted by 17 healthcare trusts, with the areas benefiting ranging from Walsall and Manchester, to Torbay and Suffolk. However, Kingston and Northamptonshire refused most of the appeals made to them.

Forty one of 122 primary care trusts that responded granted fewer than half requests. The figures present an incomplete picture because some trusts may prescribe medicines without the need for patients to appeal. Critics, however, say they still show unacceptably wide variations in practice.

Specialists also complain that the NHS trust officials who decide whether or not to grant the appeals are rarely experts in the disease, so they help to create the wide discrepancies.

Karol Sikora, a cancer specialist at Hammersmith hospital, west London, said his department has a wallchart that marks both sympathetic and unhelpful PCTs. “You find yourself talking to office temps and all sorts of unlikely people who are apparently making these life-or-death decisions,” said Sikora.

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