Access to cancer drugs in Australia is coming to a head after a bitter tit for tat over a pharma push to fast-track oncology treatment. 

The industry is calling for a more flexible and fast-tracked approach to approving new cancer drugs, claiming the current system is outdated. Australia ranks 18th out of 20 comparable OECD countries on access to innovative new medicines, with Australians waiting longer for subsidised cancer medicines than European counterparts, the industry trade body says. 

But the drug approval body, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, has responded saying any change to the approval process would “greatly increase the cost to the community and diminish the sustainability of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme without any commensurate gain in health outcomes”. 

There is currently a Senate inquiry on the availability of new cancer drugs. The PBAC submission to the inquiry notes there is a discrepancy between the benefits patients perceive the new drugs to have with clinical evidence, which is often “of such poor quality that it does not allow confident assessment of benefit”, it says. 

It adds that while new drugs were “not often dramatically more effective than older drugs, they are routinely dramatically more highly priced”.

The Committee recommends against a special process for cancer drugs, saying it would create “justified resentment” among other patients. 

But trade body Medicines Australia says Australians have to wait, on average, more than a year between the medicines being deemed safe and effective and then being made available on the PBS. 

“Australians have access to less than 40% of new medicines considered safe and effective since 2009. Patients in many other OECD countries have 75% or more of the new medicines reimbursed and readily available through government funding,” said Dr Martin Cross, Medicines Australia chairman. 

“This is just not good enough and I’m sure I share the same views as patients when I say access to medicines needs to be modernised. It’s becoming apparent to patient, clinicians and the industry that Australia’s system for selecting and making new medicines available is struggling.”  

The Australian Government spent $1.5 billion on subsidising cancer medicines last year.