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Drug company boss calls for inquiry into breast cancer drug prices

A drug company head says the government should hold an inquiry into the prices pharmaceutical firms charge for breast cancer drugs.

Patients battling for two new drugs had their calls for an inquiry into drug-buyer Pharmac turned down by MPs last week.

Chairperson of family-owned New Zealand pharmaceutical company Te Arai BioFarma, Lance Gravatt, lost his son Zachary, a medical student who died from meningococcal septicaemia at Auckland Hospital in 2009.

"It was a similar situation," he said. "He could have been saved by a vaccine that wasn't funded because it wasn't considered to be cost-effective."

Breast cancer patients want funded access to drugs Kadcyla from Roche, and Ibrance from Pfizer, for late-stage cancer.

Forty-one patients are paying $6500 every three weeks for Kadcyla under a cost-sharing programme with Roche, with others facing similar costs for Ibrance.

Dr Gravatt said they shouldn't have to dig deep or plead.

"I think it's very sad and really outrageous that it is in some ways left to the patients and their families to plead publicly for access to a medicine that may well extend their life."

Mr Gravatt said once funded, drug firms often sought to extend access to a wider group of patients, or seek funding for a newer drug when an older expensive one comes off patent.

He said it's going to be a rising problem and the government should look into it.

"It's just normal business practice where they maintain their monopoly, their exclusivity for years and years and years and years.

"And these are practices that are illegal but I think they are practices where the government should be looking from time to time, shine a light on them, and make sure that ethics are also a question that's being raised."

A spokesperson for the breast cancer patients, Malcolm Mulholland, said the spotlight needs to remain on Pharmac and its processes, however.

"We need to get our own house in order first, and that house for us is Pharmac. So we need to get all of these things lined up correctly so that New Zealanders enjoy better health outcomes."

He said the problem isn't going away, with more patients set to demand better access to cancer drugs.

A group of women with ovarian cancer are among them - they want funding for the drugs Lynparza and Avastin, said their spokesperson Rachel Brown.

"There is no cure but they can have an additional 13.6 months on average progression free. And that's huge when there is no ... there are no other options. Another year for somebody is hugely significant."

Cancer Society medical director Chris Jackson said New Zealanders do indeed want better access to the latest medicines, but Pharmac is the way to get it.

"What we really need to look at is how we're responding to the challenges which we face, and looking at the types of things that Pharmac could do better in terms of the size of the budget, in terms of the speed of their decisions and the transparency of the decisions they make," Mr Jackson said.

Health Minister David Clark backed that, saying he will not launch an inquiry into the pricing of breast cancer drugs.

He did agree there is an issue with the cost of new and emerging medicines, though, saying he's asked Pharmac and the Health Ministry to look into it.

Pharmac said it's aware firms can charge up to 65 per cent more for medicines like Ibrance and Kadcyla in New Zealand than in countries like Malaysia.

Karen Brown

rnz.co.nz

Cropped image of woman wearing pink ribbon, symbol of breast cancer awareness
File picture. Source: istock.com