Carrick campaigner welcomes cancer drugs reform proposal

Vera Saunderson. INCT 50-707-CON
Vera Saunderson. INCT 50-707-CON

A Carrickfergus cancer patient has welcomed steps to reform the process for accessing specialist drugs in Northern Ireland.

Vera Saunderson and colleagues took their fight to Stormont as part of the Cancer Focus NI Equal Access Campaign.

The charity called for cancer patients living in the province to have the same access to 40 cancer drugs freely available in England with over 24,000 supporters signing a petition.

The announcement by Health Minister Simon Hamilton is in response to public consultation by the department in March on the Individual Funding Request (IFR), the current method of accessing certain drugs.

IFR provides access to unapproved specialist drugs where there is an agreed clinical need but where they are not routinely commissioned.

Welcoming the decision, Vera, who has advanced liver cancer, said: “I wanted to fight for other people who are maybe younger and stronger and not able to get the drugs. I know young mums who have this and are trying to bring up children. I do not know how they do it.”

The Carrickfergus grandmother’s views were echoed by Roisin Foster, chief executive, Cancer Focus NI.

“We very much welcome this announcement, which is good news for many patients who have been expressing their deep concern to us about the difficulty in accessing specialist cancer drugs. We are pleased that the Department of Health has listened to them and has agreed to improve the current drug approval process.

“We are also pleased to learn that it is the department’s intention to move forward on this promptly as there have been significant delays in this review process.”

The IRF has been criticised for its complexity and its “exceptionality criteria”. This means that some specialist drugs are only permitted if a doctor can show that their patient is different to 95% of patients with the same condition at the same stage.

The minister has said that this clause will be scrapped and that a regional scrutiny committee will be set up to ensure access to drugs is consistent across Northern Ireland.

Mr Hamilton said that funding for the new measures will be found within the Health and Social Care budget.

Mrs Foster added: “This is a significant step forward in the fight for better access to treatments. We look forward to engaging with the minister in the near future on putting in place an ambitious vision for cancer services in the next Programme for Government.

“Cancer Focus NI recognises that there are substantial costs involved in developing new drugs. We would, however, ask the pharmaceutical industry to consider the amount some companies currently attach to new drugs and the degree to which such high costs limit access.”

Mr Hamilton said he planned to start work on reforms immediately and had instructed officials to set up a task and finish group to progress the work with a view to reporting back to him in the new year.