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Affordable access to innovative cancer medicines — don’t forget the prices

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Efforts to improve access to cancer medicines should not overlook exorbitant prices

On 17 September 2015, the much anticipated Senate report on the Availability of new, innovative and specialist cancer drugs in Australia was released.1 The inquiry preceding the report, which was triggered by concerns about inadequate and inequitable access to cancer medicines, had attracted over 200 submissions from doctors, patients, patient advocacy groups and government decision makers.

The report addressed the health burden of cancer on our society; the impact on patients of delayed access to cancer medicines; and the challenges of assessing cost-effectiveness, particularly for rare cancers. It also focused on ways of improving Australia’s processes of health technology assessment (HTA), by which we determine whether medicines are safe, effective and cost-effective.

Australia’s health technology assessment processes

In Australia, HTAs for medicines are carried out in two phases. First, a pharmaceutical company makes a submission to the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which assesses a medicine’s efficacy and safety. If the medicine is approved, an application can be made to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) to have the medicine subsidised by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). The PBAC assesses whether the medicine is cost-effective…