The government has put £50 million into an interim cancer drugs fund to help give patients better access to medicines recommended by their doctors but not approved for NHS use under normal cost channels.

The Department of Health said Friday that it has set aside the funds to help NHS patients needing immediate access to innovative new treatments to extend survival or boost quality of life, before the birth of the Cancer Drugs Fund ‘proper’ in March next year.

The cash stems from savings made within central DH budgets, which can now be rerouted to secure better frontline care for thousands of patients, and is separate to Primary Care Trust spending, the government said.

As such, despite the new fund clinicians will still be able to apply to local Trusts for exceptional funding of medicines not approved or yet appraised by NHS cost watchdog the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

Clinically-led panels have now been established in each region of the country to ensure that it is doctors making the decisions on how the funding will be spent locally, under the government’s drive and White Paper commitment to devolve power from politicians to clinicians.

According to health secretary Andrew Lansley, the launch of the interim fund is just the start of plans to address the disparity in patients’ access to cancer drugs in England compared to peer nations, and “empower patients by giving them more control over their care and helping them access the clinically effective drugs that their doctors believe could improve their quality of life”.

“I want to assure all patients that I am working towards longer term plans to change the way we pay for drugs so patients get better access to drugs and the NHS and taxpayers get better value for money” he added, referring to the government’s plans to switch from the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme to a system of value-based pricing for medicines by 2014, though the finer details of the plans and how it will work remain unclear.

Broad support

Also welcoming the move, Andrew Wilson, Chief Executive of the Rarer Cancers Foundation, stressed that patients “should not have to battle the system to gain access to the drugs that their clinician feels they need”, and that the fund “should remove the uncertainty and fear associated with struggling to get treatments funded”.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical has also voiced its support. Noting that many NHS cancer patients do not receive treatment with the best available medicines, director-general Richard Barker said the launch of interim fund is “an important first step towards the government's goal of providing better access to modern medicines for NHS patients, while longer-term solutions are sought”.

However, as the interim fund is only available for the benefit of NHS patients in England, the ABPI has also called on the devolved nations “to consider adopting similar arrangements to improve access to medicines for patients across the UK”, and address the postcode lottery of treatment on our own shores.

Hilary Tovey, policy manager at Cancer Research UK, also noted: “It's important that decisions about giving patients access to the fund are made as quickly as possible. Doctors should not have to go through laborious application processes which can hold up treatment”.

And she stressed that the interim fund is just a “stop-gap”, adding: “We still don't know how the full fund - due to come into effect from April - will be distributed, or how much money the government will be putting in”.

The Department of Health said it is planning to undertake a full public consultation on the 2011 Cancer Drugs Fund sometime during the Autumn following the publication of the Comprehensive Spending Review, in order to garner opinion on healthcare professionals, patients, carers and the public on its proposals.