Inaugural NZ Medicine Access Summit

The first-ever national event to discuss New Zealand’s woeful access to modern medicines was held in Wellington, 29-30 April, at Parliament and hosted by The Honorable David Seymour, Associate Minister of Health. Fiona Imlach and Suzanne Value from Migraine Foundation Aotearoa NZ attended. The event was organized by Patient Voice Aotearoa, a volunteer-run advocacy group campaigning for the rights of patients in NZ, and Medicines NZ, a coalition of pharmaceutical companies that regularly publish research highlighting how far behind the rest of the world NZ is in terms of access to medicines.

David Seymour, while opening the Summit, took the opportunity to announce additional funding for Pharmac, which had a lukewarm reception from advocates in the room, as this extra funding was not enough to cover any new medicines, but only keep existing medicines on the books.

The Summit was appropriately named ‘Valuing Life’ and stories from patients painted a grim picture of how lives were being lost, restricted and ripped apart by diseases for which there are effective treatments elsewhere, but not here. Fiona Tolich talked about how she, and others, have had to move to Australia to access life-changing medicine. We heard how far NZ lagged behind the rest of the OECD in terms of access to modern medicines – absolutely last, behind Mexico, Lithuania and Hungary. Myths were busted – NZ can afford to pay for new medicines but we choose to spend money on other things. Spending on medicines is not a priority within the health budget, even though the economic benefits from new and better medicines means that they may well pay for themselves, through reduced costs elsewhere in the health system (e.g. hospital visits) and increased tax revenue for the Government from patients and carers being able to return to work.

The guest speaker from the Netherlands, Dr Tim Kanters, talked about how to include broader, societal perspectives into the economic analysis of new medicines, not just focus on the impact and benefit to the health system, as Pharmac currently does. We were delighted that Dr Kanters used the example of migraine to demonstrate how important it was to consider costs and benefits to families and society, and productivity costs from lost employment, in such analyses.

There was a consensus amongst the advocates that more progress needed to be made in Pharmac’s transparency, timeliness and engagement with consumers but the biggest barrier to better access to medicines was that the budget allocated to medicines was inadequate, not even enough to keep up with population growth, ageing and inflation. It was immensely disappointing that the only MPs to attend the Summit, held at Parliament, were the two Act MPs, David Seymour and Todd Stephenson and NZ First health spokesperson Jenny Marcroft. Not a single showing from National, Labour, Greens or Te Pāti Māori. The lack of bipartisan agreement about the urgent need for improved medicines access in NZ signals a failure of politicians to hear the voices of consumers and families who are losing lives, livelihoods and quality of life because we do not have the same treatments available to us as our peers in Australia, UK, Canada and the US.

We will continue to support Patient Voice Aotearoa and any actions coming from the Medicines Summit to improve medicines access in NZ. If you can, you can also support this work by raising this issue with Members of Parliament. You can contact your own MP, send a letter, an email or request a meeting, and you can also write to the Ministers currently responsible for health (as of May 2024, Shane Reti from the National Party is Minister of Health, David Seymour from Act, Matt Doocey from National and Casey Costello from NZ First are Associate Ministers of Health) and the Ministers in other parties who are the health spokespersons (as of May 2024, Ayesha Verrall for Labour, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer for Te Pāti Māori, Hūhana Lyndon for the Green Party). The message we want the politicians to hear is we are waiting too long for medicines that would not only improve our lives and wellbeing but would make us more able to engage productively with our families, with work and in society in general. We, as voting constituents, want to see more money spent on life-changing medicines. You may even have examples of why you would prioritise medicines, and health care in general, over other things that the Government is currently spending taxpayers’ money on. As one attendee at the Summit observed, Pharmac, and the Government sets Pharmac’s budget, is acting like an insurance agent that we all pay into, but when we go to make a claim, we’re turned away and told there’s no compensation available. It’s just not good enough.