Jim Wells: Cancer drug decision the hardest I’ve made

Jim Wells, former Stormont health minister. Pic by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Jim Wells, former Stormont health minister. Pic by Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

A former Northern Ireland health minister has admitted deciding whether to spend limited resources on expensive new medicines was “the most difficult situation I have faced”.

DUP MLA Jim Wells, who was health minister from 2014 to 2015, was speaking after the Department of Health confirmed a groundbreaking new medicine for ovarian cancer sufferers known as Niraparib will be made available under new rules announced in September.

The new rules, which mean Northern Ireland patients can access the same drugs as those available under the England-only cancer drugs fund, have come about as a result of work carried out by a succession of health ministers from 2011 to 2017.

Begun by the DUP’s Edwin Poots, who announced a review of the application process for specialist medicines during his time as health minister, that work was carried forward by his party colleagues and successors Jim Wells and Simon Hamilton.

Mr Wells, speaking to the News Letter, said he is “delighted” Northern Ireland has finally been brought into line with the rest of the UK as a result of that work.

But, reflecting on his short time in office during 2014 and 2015, he described the role as “the most difficult job in politics”.

“The problem with these drugs is the expense,” he said. “It sounds horrible to have to consider expense but these specialist cancer drugs were invariably extremely expensive.

“It is very difficult if people can have a few extra months or years with their children or grandchildren to say to those people that we simply can’t afford to pay for it.”

He continued: “I actually met several people who were terminally ill with cancer. They were in my office pleading with me to make these drugs available, to give them several more months with a reasonable quality of life. But at the same time it was being said to me that the cost of a particular drug was the equivalent of nine heart bypasses.

“You are forced into making a very difficult decision — do you extend dramatically the life of a 30-year-old man or to give an extra six months to a man who is much older and suffering from cancer?”

Mr Wells said: “In an ideal world you would have the money to do all of that but of course you don’t. Therefore you are forced to make ‘wisdom of Solomon’ decisions. It was the most difficult situation that I faced. There is no other job in politics that weighs so heavily on you.”

The DUP MLA said he is now “delighted the department has finally grasped the nettle and found the money to put us in the same position as the rest of the UK”.