There was good news for cancer patients in England this week after the government confirmed it will provide £600 million for a three-year fund to improve access to new cancer drugs on the National Health Service.

There had been fears that the pot may be reduced under the current spurt of cost cuts, but the Department of Health announced yesterday that £200 million a year will be made available for the Cancer Drugs Fund from 2011 to 2013.

The move is designed to help patients get better access to therapies recommended by their specialists, even if they have not been approved by cost regulator the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, giving clinicians yet more power to dish out the treatments they feel are the most appropriate.

In addition, it is hoped that the extra cash pile – which is separate from existing Primary Care Trust budgets – will also help to improve the country’s ranking in terms of the provision of innovative cancer treatment to patients, as it is low on the list compared with many of its global peers.

Just a few weeks ago the government said it is has also set aside £50 million for an interim fund to help patients get treatment with drugs that have the potential to extend survival or improve quality of life before the fund ‘proper’ is launched next year, with clinically-led panels deciding on how to spend this money for patients locally.

The move does not take away from NICE’s remit, as the Institute will continue to appraise most significant new drugs and will have an important part to play in the government’s plans to switch to a system of value-based pricing for new medicines when the current Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme expires, it said.

“Our longer-term plans will change the way we pay for drugs so that patients get better access to drugs and the NHS and the taxpayer get better value for money,” commented health secretary Andrew Lansley.

Consultation launched

The DH has now kicked off a consultation over its plans, seeking public opinion on the arrangements and other proposals for the fund's operation, including ways in which patients and clinicians can be supported to make the best treatment decisions and what the scope of the Fund should be.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has welcomed the launch of the public consultation and the government’s commitment of £200 million a year to help boost patient access to innovative cancer treatments.

Director-General Richard Barker said the consultation raises many important questions about how the fund will operate, such as “whether the fund should be administered at regional or national level and how to ensure that NHS cancer patients across England have a fair, timely and equal opportunity to benefit from the fund”.

The Rarer Cancers Foundation has also welcomed the news that the government is fulfilling its commitment for an annual £200 million fund. "Our best estimate is that this will be sufficient to ensure that all cancer patients are able to receive on the NHS the treatments which their clinicians wish to prescribe," noted chief executive Andrew Wilson. 

The consultation will run until January 19, 2011.