04/01/2017 16:17 GMT | Updated 04/01/2017 18:52 GMT

EXCLUSIVE: Jeremy Hunt Backs Move To Increase Waiting Times For Routine New Medicines

Slammed as "arbitrary" and "dangerous" by health experts.

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Cancer sufferers could be among thousands of patients forced to wait longer for new medicines, Huff Post UK has learned.

The Heath Secretary Jeremy Hunt has backed a move by NHS bodies NICE and NHS England to slow access to some of the most widely applicable new drugs, in a cost-cutting move slated as “arbitrary” and “dangerous” by health experts.

Patients currently wait just 90 days for new treatments, once they are approved, but the new proposal would extend wait-times for medicines costing the NHS more than £20 million to an undefined length of time. 

Karl Claxton, a Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Health Economics at York University, called the move “arbitrary”, saying: “Drugs relevant to large populations will be delayed, as well as cancer drugs, which are priced high.”

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Jeremy Hunt

Hunt promised in October to speed up patient access to medicines. But Anita Charlesworth at the Health Foundation, a think tank, said the Health Secretary’s words now looked “ironic” given his backing for the new proposals.

“This is a material change. You are telling patients you don’t know when they can have access to new drugs”, she said. 

Richard Murray, from health think-tank Kings Fund called the new £20 million cut-off point “quite low”.

“NICE and NHS England say that this will not impact on many products: however, is not possible to cross-check this, and it will, obviously, impact on the more widely used products”, he said.

He said some medicines in wide use at the moment “would have definitely been caught” by the new threshold. “Almost by definition these will be drugs lots of people are trying to use”.

He said the move set a dangerous new precedent for medicine funding.

“Since NICE has been in place, if a drug was value for money it got funded”, he said. 

“This is the thin end of the wedge - once you’ve accepted that in principle there is an affordability test, funding can get squeezed further.”   

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David Watson, pricing director at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) criticised the plans. 

“The NHS had said the treatments they were trying to limit were the ‘once in the decade’ treatments - what they are actually proposing is limiting much more routine medicines”.

A spokesperson for the ABPI said: “This proposal will have a significant impact on how new medicines will be brought to patients in the UK”.

“Medicines in the UK are already subject to rigorous value assessment by NICE and cost controls through a deal with the government that caps NHS medicines spend. Any decision to implement further restrictions needs to be appropriate, in the best interest of patients and support investment in the medicines of the future”, they said.

When contacted for comment the Department of Health said NICE had led the consultation, but confirmed the Government backed the move.

A Department of Health spokesperson said:

“This consultation is about improving speeding up patient access to new treatments.

“Key recommendations actually propose to fast track patient access – automatically funding treatments for very rare conditions up to £100,000 per quality-adjusted life year, which is in fact five times greater than NICE’s standard threshold.”

Sir Andrew Dillon, NICE chief executive, said: “These proposed changes are not about delaying access to new drugs. We want to be more agile and flexible in the way we make decisions about new drugs, medical devices and diagnostics, so that patients can get access to them more quickly and the NHS can manage its resources fairly and efficiently. NICE and NHS England have worked together to develop these proposals.

“The pace and scale of innovation in the NHS require NICE and NHS England to collaborate closely to ensure patients are benefiting from faster access to the most cost effective treatments

“By further streamlining our processes we will ensure treatments that clearly offer exceptional value for money will be available to the patients who need them faster than ever before.

“Where the introduction of a new treatment places a large, immediate demand on NHS budgets, the impact of their introduction on other services has to be taken into account in managing their adoption.

“NICE and NHS England believe these proposals represent a fair approach to the significant challenge of providing faster access to innovative, cost effective treatments alongside the need to safeguard future financial sustainability.”