Darren Millar AM is Shadow Minister for Health and Assembly Member for Clwyd West. Follow Darren on Twitter.
Since the inception of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, Labour has been in power. Testament to its failure to deliver prosperity or improvements in vital public services, is Labour’s management of the NHS, which remains the poor man of the United Kingdom. The service masks so much inequity for Welsh patients, but nothing lays bare the unfairness of Labour’s NHS more than their refusal to consider a Cancer Drugs Fund.
There can be no argument that access to cancer drugs in Wales differs to other parts of the UK. We hear far too often the tragic stories of Welsh patients who can’t access life-prolonging treatments that are available across the border.
It is impossible to imagine the devastation of the emotions that a patient must go through when they are told that they cannot have access to a drug or treatment that could prolong their life because of their postcode. I have dealt with many of these cases, both in my capacity as Clwyd West Assembly Member and Shadow Minister for Health.
This is not a problem which affects all Welsh cancer patients; many receive the treatment they need from first class frontline NHS staff every day without any problem, but when the problem does occur, the effects can be just as mind-numbing – if not more so – than the initial diagnosis itself.
It is meeting patients and their families and listening to their heart-breaking stories that motivates me to address this injustice.
In England, cancer patients have access to a cancer drugs fund worth £200million. It aims to widen access to modern cancer medicines so that patients receive the world-class treatment they deserve. It's a tragedy that such a scheme does not exist here in Wales.
Independent research by the Rarer Cancers Foundation has found that there are 24 modern cancer drugs which are now routinely available in England that are not as easily accessible in Wales. According to the Foundation, patients from Wales are five times less likely than their English counterparts to gain access to some cancer drugs – but an annual investment of just over £3 million would level the playing field. Last year, the Welsh Government spent more on doling out free toothbrushes to schoolchildren.
Access to cancer treatment isn’t confined to drugs. There are recent innovations in radiosurgery that are not available here. Brand names differ, though CyberKnife and Gamma Knife have already attracted media attention. These modern radiotherapy machines deliver treatment much more accurately than conventional systems, reducing the possibility of adverse side effects and improving outcomes. Regrettably, Welsh patients are routinely travelling to England for treatment.
This situation shouldn’t continue. Earlier this summer I launched a petition calling for the Welsh Government to establish a Cancer Treatments Fund here in Wales.
Building upon this evidence, I want to see £5million invested to improving access to all cancer treatments. This includes extending mobile cancer treatment units which help cancer patients to access treatment locally – especially important given the health centralisation agenda being pursued by the Welsh Government.
I continue to question why cancer patients cannot access their drugs, whilst the universal free prescriptions policy continues to see millions taxpayers' pounds spent on items such as paracetamol, which are available for as little as 16 pence in local stores.
I have made these arguments before and will continue to do so. £5million is a tiny fraction of the overall health budget. Targeting such resources at widening access to cancer treatments would change the lives of patients and families. We can afford to establish this fund and I believe we have a moral obligation to do so.
The Welsh Government has said it is spending more per head of population on cancer drugs than in England. Ministers say they will ‘not take lessons’ from the UK Government. The politics of this is understandable, but the reason Wales spends more on cancer drugs is because there is a higher prevalence of cancer in Wales. All the more reason to give cancer a higher priority and establish a Cancer Treatments Fund.
Instead of playing politics, I would urge the Health Minister, the First Minister, and the rest of the Welsh Government to learn lessons from cancer patients. Learn from those who continue to return from hospital to face the prospect of looking at their loved ones and telling them they will not receive a life-prolonging treatment.
To show your support for a Cancer Treatments Fund for Wales please sign the petition at: