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Injection of cash brings relief for anxious cancer patients

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The Federal Government has provided a multi-million dollar lifeline for anxious cancer patients and carers who feared restricted access to life-saving chemotherapy treatments at the end of the year.

In a decision greeted with relief by cancer support groups and clinicians, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Health Minister Peter Dutton announced on 30 November that $82 million had been set aside to cover the costs of dispensing chemotherapy drugs to 150,000 cancer patients from 1 January 2014.
The decision, which Mr Abbott said was part of efforts by his Government to “clean up Labor’s mess”, ends months of uncertainty for cancer sufferers after the previous Government commissioned a comprehensive review of chemotherapy funding arrangements.
But the extra funds, which provide a $152.66 Government subsidy for each transfusion chemotherapy infusion, will only last until June 30, 2015, leaving patients and carers anxious about longer term arrangements.

Immediate Past President of the Private Cancer Patients Group, Dr John Bashford, said Mr Abbott’s announcement was of “immense relief” for cancer sufferers.
“We have absolutely no doubt that the Coalition understands the problem facing every cancer clinic and every patients and their famil[ies],” Dr Bashford said. “[But] we need to see the detail. There was no mention of the details of the long term arrangements.”
The Government said funding beyond mid-2015 would “be considered as part of any future agreement for pharmacy services under the PBS”.
The issue arose earlier this year when concerns were voiced that cuts in the price of some chemotherapy medicines would make the preparation of chemotherapy infusions commercially unviable.

The preparation and supply of chemotherapy infusions is a niche area of pharmacy practice, entailing significant capital investment and specialised knowledge.
In Australia, fewer than sixty pharmacies (1 per cent of the industry) supplies 80 per cent of all infusions funded under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
Last financial year, the PBS subsidised about 830,000 chemotherapy infusions at a cost of $570 million.
In May, the-then Health Minister Tanya Plibersek announced a comprehensive review of chemotherapy funding arrangements, to be completed by the end of the year.

In the interim, to ensure the ongoing viability of chemotherapy services, Ms Plibersek authorised an additional $60 subsidy for each chemotherapy infusion. The interim increase was set to expire on 31 December.

The review’s report was delivered to the incoming Abbott Government in October, and found that PBS price disclosure measures had eliminated “excessive profit margins” for dispensers, but in the process may have cut margins so much that they were no longer sufficient to meet average production and supply costs.
“Data provided by a sample of pharmacies indicate that there may be a deficit in funding,” the report said. “However, there are limitations in the verifiability and representativeness of the data due to the small number of data sets and inconsistencies between reported costs.”
Under the arrangements announced by Mr Abbott and Mr Dutton, pharmacies and hospitals will receive $154.66 per infusion – a $62 increase from the base fee of $92.66 (which already included a $15 mark-up).

In addition, acting on a recommendation from the report about improving efficiency by reducing complexity and administrative burden, they announced that clinicians would be able to use a patient’s medication chart to dispense and claim PBS medicines, freeing them up from completing duplicate paperwork.

Adrian Rollins

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