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Cancer Research UK - 'Unacceptable' plans revealed by NICE that could delay availability of drugs on the NHS in England

Plans to create an additional affordability test for medicines available on the NHS have been labelled ‘unacceptable’ by charities and politicians. 

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently consulted (link is external) on plans to delay the introduction of new drugs that cost NHS England more than £20 million a year. The restrictions are likely to be enforced next month, a NICE announcement has revealed. 

Sarah Woolnough, Cancer Research UK’s executive director of policy and information, said the move was unacceptable, and that cancer patients could die as a result of the change. 

“If NICE thinks a cancer treatment is clinically effective and represents value for money, then patients should receive it without delay,” she added. 

NICE bases its approval on a measure which looks at years of good quality of life (link is external) added by a drug. It usually approves drugs which cost less than £30,000 for each additional year of quality life.

But the new plans would create an extra hurdle, which is estimated would affect 1 in 5 new medicines across all diseases.

“A system that could add up to a three year delay before patients can access treatments deemed clinically and cost effective is unacceptable,” said Woolnough. “Cancer patients may lose their lives whilst they wait.”

The additional barrier will disproportionately affect diseases with large numbers of patients, such as breast and lung cancer.

As there are tens of thousands of patient diagnosed with each of those cancers in the UK each year, the £20 million threshold could be passed rapidly for most treatments.

“We need to decide whether we want a world class health system in the UK, and if so we need to pay for it,” Woolnough added.

The threshold will include treatments for patients at the end of their lives, where a lack of treatment will be felt most.

There are also concerns that this new obstacle would increase uncertainty in the life sciences sector as the UK prepares to leave the EU.  

The proposals have been seen as a disincentive for those in the sector developing medicines to bring to the UK market in case those medicines are then subject to delays. 

Some diseases with few or no treatment options but high numbers of patients, such as dementia, might also lose out. 

Woolnough added that manufacturers should be encouraged to price drugs responsibly and that she hoped that the Government will reconsider the barrier’s introduction, “otherwise it will be patients, their families and carers who could pay the heaviest price.”

NHS England’s acting director for specialised commissioning, John Stewart, said: “These are not easy decisions, but we are committed to working closely with companies that are willing to price their products responsibly

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