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Calls for a new emergency health fund to pay for expensive cancer drugs

The Minister of State for Health Finian McGrath wants a fund of €80 million to be set up.

Image: Shutterstock/Dima Sobko

THE MINISTER OF State for Health Finian McGrath has called for an emergency health fund to be established that could help pay for expensive drugs.

The Independent TD said the emergency fund could be used as a “back up”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland about the recent controversy surrounding the approval of new life-saving cancer drugs - pembrolizumab and nivolizumab – McGrath said it was time to “think outside the box”.

“I would like to see something like an emergency health fund to act as a regular backup.”

The minister of state said the health service was constantly dealing with controversies, such as the high costs of particular drugs, and said an emergency fund to dip into would be of benefit.

The fund would be in the region of €60-€80 million, he said.

McGrath said he planned to bring the proposal to Cabinet and said he would be discussing the idea with the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, to see if it was a possibility.

He said it was time to look at a long term strategy towards health care in Ireland.

Life-saving drugs

Last week, former senator and leading oncologist, Professor John Crown, said time was running out for his patients who were awaiting the approval of the new drugs.

He said the drugs were ”revolutionary” and “quite superior to anything we had before”.

The drug costs $150,000 (about €134,000) per patient per year in the US. It is available in other European countries such as Greece.

Crown said the drug could particularly help patients with malignant melanoma – the most dangerous kind of skin cancer. About 140 people in Ireland died from the condition every year.

He said the Health Minister Simon Harris could fasttrack the drug being made accessible, something previous minister James Reilly did with a similar but less effective drug when he was in office.

However, Harris has since said in a statement that he has been in touch with the HSE over the weekend and has emphasised the need for the assessment process to be completed as soon as possible.

Ireland in Europe Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

McGrath said the HSE will make recommendations to the government about whether to approve the drugs.

“Important decisions will always be made by medical experts before politicians get involved,” he said.

He said medical experts will make recommendations to ministers, who will then decide on the funding. McGrath said the ultimate decision will be made by the Minister for Health who will take on board the professional advice from medical professionals.

… then at that stage it is the minister of health, he will make a recommendation to Cabinet… the buck stops at the very end, with Cabinet.

McGrath said Minister Harris has asked the HSE drugs group to complete their assessment on the cancer drugs this week.

The Minister of State said Cabinet have also been discussing the high price pharmaceutical companies are charging for medicines.

Garda stations phone tapping Source: Brian Lawless

Over the weekend, the former Health Minister Leo Varadkar, said it was time for a debate on what we are willing to pay for medicines.

He said he could not have made this point while he was the Minister for Health, but stated:

… it’s not a case of putting a price on somebody’s life and saying they are not worth €5 million, what you actually saying is that is €5 million you are not going to spend on other services.

McGrath said the patient should always come first, adding that all human life is precious.

Read: ‘Time is running out’: John Crown says cancer patients could die over delay in accessing drug>

Read: ‘It is not enough to scoff at the rise of extremism, it needs to be stopped’>

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