Almost 22,000 cancer patients could be denied access to the treatments they need if changes to the Cancer Drugs Fund go ahead, according to the Rarer Cancers Foundation (RCF).
The Government’s Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF) was established in 2010 and has helped an estimated 80,000 patients across England access treatments that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) deemed too expensive to be made routinely available on the NHS.
Following heavy criticism of the CDF over claims of mismanagement and regular overspending, a House of Commons public accounts committee (PAC) called for “significant and urgent reform”.
NHS England has since published a number of proposals for the future of the fund, promising faster access to innovative cancer medicines.
The new system will have a fixed budget of £340m and is scheduled to start in July 2016 to ensure that patients receiving 'off-label' treatments for very rare cancers currently available on the CDF will continue to do so.
At present, the CDF can elect to pay for treatments NICE has rejected for widespread NHS use, but under the new system the health watchdog will make all the decisions. By the time a new drug appears on the market, NICE will assign it a yes, no or maybe rating.
Breakthrough drugs that are given the go-ahead will be routinely offered across the NHS while those assigned with a maybe rating can be considered for the CDF.
Analysis carried out by the RCF has revealed that 23 out of the 38 treatments currently available through the fund could be cut if NHS England and the changes proposed by NICE go ahead.
The charity says that without significant further changes to the proposals, thousands of patients could be denied life-extending treatment every year, despite being eligible under the old system.
They include patients who would have received treatments which have already been cut from the fund and patients who need medication which hasn’t yet been appraised by NICE and is not currently available on the CDF.
Andrew Wilson, Chief Executive of the Rarer Cancers Foundation, said: “There is a danger that these half-baked proposals could turn back the clock on cancer treatment, returning the NHS to the bad old days where the majority of new treatments are denied to the people who need them the most.
“It is good news that access to some rare cancer treatments has been temporarily safeguarded, but far more needs to be done to improve these proposals.”
It is vital that the proposed changes to the CDF do not result in cuts to patients’ access to treatment. If the NICE assessment process of potential breakthrough drugs is not flexible enough, these proposals could result in fewer potentially life-extending drugs becoming available to NHS patients by the end of the year.
Around 10,000 lives are lost every year in the UK because Britain lags behind the best in the world at treating cancer. A vast number of these deaths could be prevented if patients were referred for treatment earlier. If the availability of cheaper cancer drugs on the NHS could improve treatment, it would be a very welcome development.
Brendan Hope is a senior clinical negligence solicitor at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in Manchester.
Slater and Gordon help people who have suffered from delayed or wrong diagnosis of cancer due to medical negligence.
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