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Subsidising medical drugs

The Sunday Age’s ‘Cancer Drug Shame’ (followed by a supporting editorial) advocates the subsidized provision of various ‘biologicals’ for treating cancer patients irrespective of any assessment of their cost or effectiveness. The Government’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), it seems, are just not getting it right. Although drugs like Herceptin would cost ‘more than $140 million’, the editorial suggests, this is a pittance in relation to the $6 billion spent on the PBS and given ‘the precious commodity of human life, is this too much to ask for?’

I can’t answer this without data and neither should irresponsible journalists. One needs information on the effectiveness of the drug, its provision costs and the opportunity cost of investing the $140 million in other forms of health or social investment – there needs to be a cost-benefit study. Roche, the drug’s manufacturer, has applied for Herceptin be listed on the PBS and the application will be considered at the July meeting of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC). The PBAC is required to ensure that public money spent on drugs provides cost-effective returns. Isn’t this sensible? Or would you just want to take Roche’s word for it? Indeed, cost effectiveness seems to be a secondary issue for the Age since one of the other drugs it cites is iressa for treating lung cancer. It costs $50,000 per years but has not proven ‘as effective as hoped’.

The argument is also that, since Herceptin can be afforded by wealthy people who pay for it themselves, poor people who cannot afford it should therefore have it provided via public subsidies. This logic would apply to any drug or treatment irrespective of cost or effectiveness.

What’s got into The Age recently? Front page stories that are little more than poorly-researched personal viewpoints – they are not news- buttressed by supporting editorials. The same irresponsible journalism occurred recently with the silly plan to provide free public transport in Melbourne. No data, no arguments, just daft populism.

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