Thousands of patients are being denied “life-saving” breast cancer drugs which cost just 43 pence due to an NHS funding row, research has suggested.
Charity Breast Cancer Now estimates 27,000 women in the UK are being denied osteoporosis medication which can prevent breast cancer spread in the bone due to on-going uncertainty as to who is responsible for funding the medication.
Bisphosphonates are low-cost drugs which can strengthen the bone and prevent cancer spreading. Research has suggested they can reduce risk of cancer spreading within 10 years by 18 per cent and risk of death from the disease to 14.7 per cent.
The treatment is estimated to cost 43p per day per patient, for the medication, consultant time and subsequent monitoring.
However, who should take financial responsibility for funding the drugs is disputed and campaigners say it is unclear whether hospital trusts or local commissioning groups should foot the bill. A survey conducted by Breast Cancer Now found three quarters of cancer oncologists say they are unable to prescribe the drugs due to confusion over which NHS bodies are responsible for covering the costs.
They therefore estimate that of 35,700 women recommended the medicine, 27,000 are being denied it. They estimate that “an extra 1,180 women each year could be prevented from dying from breast cancer”.
In a statement, the charity said: “Despite the overwhelming evidence of the clinical benefit of these cheap drugs for women diagnosed with breast cancer – and clear clinical support from UK breast cancer bodies such as the UK Breast Cancer Group and NHS England’s breast cancer clinical reference group – there is still no clear national commissioning policy. This has led to difficulties for oncologists in prescribing them due to blockages in funding.
“This is largely due to the lack of national guidance on who should fund them. For example, in England, it remains unclear whether it is the responsibility of the hospital trust or the local clinical commissioning group (CCG) to pay for these drugs for their patients, or whether it might be funded centrally by NHS England, as many cancer drugs are.”
Professor Rob Coleman, orofessor of medical oncology at the University of Sheffield, said: “The clinical evidence demonstrating the benefits of bisphosphonates for postmenopausal breast cancer patients is convincing and based on many thousands of women treated in well-conducted trials across the world.
“It should be an absolute priority for every clinician and commissioner involved in the provision of breast cancer services to ensure this simple and safe treatment is made available, as a matter of urgency.
“Not only can they save lives but they would reduce needless expenditure on unnecessary tests and the ever-increasing costs of treating women with secondary breast cancer.”
The research adds to growing concerns that funding cuts could be resulting in patients being denied or delayed treatment on the NHS. In July, doctors in an NHS clinical advisory group claimed NHS England tried to sabotage attempts to introduce drugs to treat hepatitis C because they feared they could not afford them and subsequently sought to delay their release until the following financial year. NHS England denied the claims.
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The following month, a High Court judge ruled the NHS is able to fund PrEP to treat Hiv, despite NHS England’s decision that it was unable to afford to do so.
A recent investigation by The Independent revealed thousands of patients are risking their lives by buying medication on social media websites including Facebook groups after being denied treatment on the NHS due to funding cuts.
A spokesperson for NHS England told The Independent that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is currently updating guidelines on early and locally advanced breast cancer diagnosis and management. They said: “The report of the independent Cancer Taskforce included a specific recommendation on the use of bisphosphonates. We continue to work to realise the ambitions of the report and will shortly be publishing an update on progress made.”