Cancer fund shows 'political opportunism'

The emergency cancer drugs fund, announced by the government last week, has been roundly criticised by a leading medical journal.

According to an editorial in The Lancet, the £50m fund is "the product of political opportunism and intellectual incoherence" and undermines the evidence-based approach to the allocation of NHS resources operated by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

In addition to this criticism, the Rarer Cancers Forum charity has published a report urging the government to make good its previous promise to provide a £200m fund for cancer drugs. It claims that unless the full amount is provided 3,600 patients will be denied treatment.

The £50m fund will be available for six months from this October. It will be distributed among the ten strategic health authorities (SHAs) responsible for overseeing the running of the NHS in England's regions. Doctors whose patients are denied NHS funding for a cancer drug will be able to appeal to an SHA panel who may or may not grant the request.

The editorial in the Lancet warns that this could result in a postcode lottery, whereby SHAs operate different funding criteria and some may run out of cash sooner than others. Already research, including that carried out by Health Insurance, has shown that primary care trusts (smaller NHS management bodies covering 152 areas of England) vary widely in the proportion of funding requests they grant for cancer drugs.

An investigation by the BBC has suggested that the true cost of funding cancer drugs unapproved by NICE is closer to £600m.

The Lancet authors write of the fund: "It not only undermines NICE, it undermines the entire concept of a rational and evidence-based approach to the allocation of finite health-care resources."

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