A move that will see patients in Northern Ireland have the same access to cancer drugs as those in other parts of the UK has been described as “bittersweet” by a leading cancer charity.
The Department of Health has announced changes to the Individual Funding Request policy, which will improve access to innovative new medicines for cancers and other conditions.
Up until now some patients with cancer and other conditions in the Province were denied access to certain drugs mainly due to cost.
The department said the changes are to be implemented as a “priority”, adding that the new arrangements will cost between £2m and £2.5m per year.
However, the move does not mean that Northern Ireland now has a Cancer Drugs Fund, which only exists in England.
The changes were announced just hours before local cancer charities were due to give evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs committee to discuss access to cancer drugs in the Province.
Reacting to the department’s decision, Roisin Foster, chief executive of Cancer Focus Northern Ireland said it was “a bittersweet day” for her organisation.
She told the committee: “We have been campaigning for equality of access since 2012, so while we are delighted we would have liked to have seen it before now and some of the people who started that campaign are sadly no longer with us. I am thinking about them very much today.”
Chair of the committee, Dr Andrew Murrison welcomed the announcement by the department, but said the body was “awaiting some understanding” of where the money will come from.
He added: “Hopefully it will not adversely impact on services and treatments elsewhere within health and social care in Northern Ireland.”
Dr Murrison said access to cancer drugs has been “relatively poor” in the Province and highlighted that waiting times in terms of cancer diagnosis and treatment are longer compared to other regions of the UK.
When asked by the committee why she felt NI had “lagged behind the rest of the UK”, Mrs Foster said “the whole system needs to be addressed”.
“It starts with pressures on GP services, where people may have a symptom they are concerned about and it is three weeks before they see their own GP; that is where the first delay starts,” she said.
“There are also problems with diagnostics. If there are symptoms that might be cancer you are asked can you afford to go privately for a scan. If you can it does take pressure off the health service, but if not then you are into very long waits.
“Then there are problems with treatments starting and ministerial targets not being met. So I can’t point to one thing, it is the whole system that needs to be addressed.”
Mrs Foster was asked to what extent she felt the political impasse at Stormont was impacting on patients’ expectations in relation to cancer.
She said it was a “great shame” that there is currently no functioning government in the Province to drive forward a restructuring of the health service.
“We have failed to keep up with other parts of the UK and that has been exacerbated by the lack of a health minister and an executive,” she said.
“Our cancer strategy is 10 years old, and the world has changed so much in that time. We have been very slow to get on board with new systems for diagnosis and treatment.
“Consistent leadership is lacking. We need a grown up and long term approach.”