Are cancer drugs really the best place to make savings?

The government's consistently huge spends on NHS reform and the Trident programme indicate dubious priorities.

The government’s consistently huge spends on NHS reform and the Trident programme indicate dubious priorities

To cries of outrage, the government has announced its plans to withdraw sixteen life extending cancer drugs in March.

The decision comes after the government’s flagship Cancer Drugs Fund predicted that it would overspend by £100 million this year.

The Fund was set up by the coalition in 2010 to pay for drugs that had been rejected by the NHS’ rationing body because they were not deemed to be cost effective. Now that Fund has run out of money.

Whilst it is true that, with the NHS as stretched as it is, compromises have to be made, the decision does raise the question of government priorities.

£380 is a lot of money, but let’s put it into context. To give two examples, it is much, much less than both the restructuring of the NHS and the Trident Programme cost the taxpayer.

The reorganisation of the NHS, branded disastrous by the British Medical Association, is estimated to have cost the taxpayer £3 billion. The 2012 Health and Social Care Act effected a massive restructuring of NHS funding, despite the Conservatives’ pre-election promise to stop top-down reconfigurations of the health service.

Competitive tendering means that an increasing number of services formerly provided by the NHS are being replaced by private companies and charities. Figures released in December showed that since the reforms, a third of NHS contracts have been awarded to private firms.

In the year 2013/14, 6.1 per cent of the NHS budget was spent on commissioning private providers.

How can the government honestly tell desperate patients that the reason they cannot access the cancer drugs they have been recommended is because they had to use the funds elsewhere? How can they market that as an ethical choice?

The decision has been painted as one which reasonably prioritises life saving drugs over life prolonging ones, but the reason that this choice has been made in the first place is because NHS funds have been so woefully misspent over the past few years.

The government also continues to spend unconscionably large amounts on its Trident programme. Since 2007, around £900 million has been spent on submarine redesign. The government estimated that the spend on Trident replacement between 2011 and 2016 would be around £3 billion pounds.

The costs of running Trident from 2019 are projected to hit £4 billion. The lifetime costs of the follow-on system have recently been estimated by the BASIC Trident Commission at £89.6 billion. At a time of austerity, at a time when the British military is engaging in conflict situations around the world, this colossal spend on hypotheticals is too much.

Cancer will always be a highly emotive issue, and medical opinions on justifying the costs of various drugs will vary. But it is worth remembering that taxpayer money continues to be squandered in areas that receive half as much public scrutiny.

Cancer will affect most people in their lifetimes – nuclear war won’t. It is something for the government to consider.

Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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