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Simon Bridges on cancer care: Labour talked big and did nothing

Simon Bridges wants consistent diagnosis, treatment and outcomes for New Zealand's cancer patients. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch.

The National Party has pledged to establish an independent cancer agency, and specifically fund cancer drugs to the tune of $200 million over four years.

National Party leader Simon Bridges says the government has failed to come up with a coherent plan to tackle New Zealand's biggest killer.

"The government's rhetoric has been soaring. They promised in the election they'd have a cancer agency, they'd have world class cancer treatment," Mr Bridges told Morning Report.

"In our situation, if you look at the funding [National] paid into Pharmac, it was $24 million a year on average. These guys aren't even at a fifth of that."Mr Bridges said cancer is New Zealand's biggest killer and people shouldn't have to sell their homes or set up Givealittle pages to fund their treatment.

At the National Party Conference yesterday, he announced two initiatives; a National Cancer Fund, which would put $50m a year into Pharmac to fund proven cancer drugs, and a National Cancer Agency which would focus on reducing the so-called 'post code lottery' - that people in rural areas receive lesser treatment than those in cities.

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"For a country the size of New Zealand, that buys you a lot. To be clear, we're talking about drugs that are proven to be effective," Mr Bridges said.

"What we heard all around the country is that we're not just thinking about the earlier drugs that aren't funded in New Zealand, it's the proven ones that are funded in Australia and the UK and Canada, but not here.

"The second part is the National Cancer Agency, we'll do that in the first 100 days."

Mr Bridges said cancer treatment is "somewhat lost within the juggernaut of the Ministry of Health".

A big focus of the National Cancer Agency would be consistent care across New Zealand.

"People talk about the cancer post code lottery, the reality is in New Zealand it does make a difference to your treatment, to your care, whether your in the rural regional New Zealand or in a big city. That's wrong and I think having a dedicated agency that is focussed on that and the standards and the measures will make a tangible difference in that regard."

Mr Bridges essentially lifted the policies from Labour's own election promise to establish a National Cancer Agency (even down to describing the current system as a 'post code lottery').

"Nearly two years in, [Labour] have talked a big talk but they've done nothing," he told Morning Report.

Put to him that National were in power for nine years without setting up such an agency, Mr Bridges said the previous government put more funding into Pharmac.

"Every single year under National it was $24m, well above inflation, five times what this caring and compassionate government is supposed to do."

"I just hope Jacinda Ardern is listening, this isn't up to someone else Jacinda Ardern, let's do this and let's do it now."

On Sunday, Health Minister David Clark said in a statement everyone wanted to see action on cancer, and the government was playing its part.

"The government promised action on cancer care and we will be making significant announcements in the coming weeks that will make a real difference to cancer sufferers now," Dr Clark said.

"National had nine years to fix cancer care but didn't. Their legacy was health cuts, underfunding, workforce shortages and services under increasing pressure. Only four years ago they wound up Cancer Control NZ, now they say they want a National Cancer Agency."

He said the latest Budget included an extra $2.8 billion in operational funding for DHBs and $1.7 billion for capital investments in hospital facilities.

"New Zealand already spends $220m a year on cancer drugs. It is not clear how National's cancer fund will relate to that existing spend - will it be maintained? National also needs to say how it will pay for its Cancer Drugs Fund and whether funding for other drugs or other services will be cut to pay for it."

He said National's policy would not speed up early access to new medicines - something many people living with cancer have been calling for.

"I am currently finalising the Interim Cancer Action Plan. It is comprehensive and deals with all aspects of cancer care, not just drugs," Dr Clark said.

The Cancer Society has welcomed the National Party's announcement with medical director Chris Jackson saying it showed there was cross-party support for strong central leadership on cancer.

Dr Jackson is also the the doctor for Southland terminal cancer patient Blair Vining who has petitioned for a National Cancer Agency to ensure all New Zealanders have equal access to treatment.

However, Dr Jackson said $50m a year for Pharmac would potentially not buy very much.

"For $50m you may only get two or three new cancer drugs, so it's important that any new fund is scoped in terms of how big it needs to be and it should be led by experts, not by politicians," Dr Jackson told Morning Report.

"The other big fishhook here is that any investment does need to be balanced. If you purchase cancer drugs, but you don't have the doctors and nurses that can deliver those drugs, you end up with bigger waiting lists.

"That's why it's important to have a balanced investment in a cancer programme rather than just one or two things that just focus on one or two areas."

Dr Jackson said a part of that balanced funding is ensuring infrastructure and staff are able to deliver the lifesaving drugs. He said there are already major waiting lists across the country for people to see oncologists.

"If you've been told that you've got advanced cancer and you can't be cured and you're going to die from that, then you want to see a specialist as soon as absolutely possible. But people are waiting weeks for that.

"In some parts of the country, waiting times for radiation [treatment] can be up to two to three months, which is outrageous."

Dr Jackson said he hoped National's support for a cancer agency would signal bipartisan co-operation.

"We don't want to see this political footballing of cancer, we want to see a strong strategy and a strong plan which is looking for a balanced investment for cancer treatment."

"I think the politicians are finally hearing what the people are saying... 142,000 people signed Blair Vining's petition and that is just unprecedented.

"People are saying they are sick and tired of having variations in care around the country, and they're sick of our cancer stats being worse than Australia and Canada and they want to see that situation turned around."

Dr Jackson said successive governments had "dropped the ball" and let the country down on cancer care.

"New Zealanders have had enough of that, and we want to see it change.

"We need strong central leadership, which is led by experts, with a strong, balanced investment portfolio and we absolutely do need more money in cancer care, but we also need to do better with what we've got," he said.

This article was first published on Radio NZ.