The Rarer Cancers Foundation has opened a can of worms today by informing us that people living in Wales and suffering from cancer are four times less likely to receive new cancer drugs than if they lived in England. Actually, this can of worms has been open ever since the National Asembly for Wales was voted into being in 1999. Health care is devolved and inevitably, differences in approach will be taken each side of Offa's Dyke. Fair enough in principle. But I live where this difference is most noticeable. Most of my constituents are referred to 'English' oncologists, but they live in Wales and their access to cancer drugs is limited by the Welsh Gov't. This is a recipe for public confusion and discontent.
But this debate is not as straight forward as much of today's reporting will portray. The position is that the Dep't of Health has decided to establish a Cancer Drugs Fund for England, which enables doctors to prescribe new cancer drugs which have not been fully and formally recommended by NICE, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence - (or 'Control of Expenditure! as its sometimes known). The Welsh Gov't does not treat cancer as a special case in accessing new drugs, believing its approach to be fairer to all patients. There is no special access to a cancer drugs fund in Wales.
I have taken an interest in this issue for many years - fuelled by my own experience of bowel cancer in 2002. So happens, I was not prescibed drugs. The tumour had not spread and the butchery was enough to do the job. But the experience was traumatic enough to give me an understanding of how I might have felt to be told I needed a specific drug - and then to be told that because I lived in Berriew (Wales) I couldn't have it. But if I lived 10 miles away, in England I could. This is not just hypothetical. Its exactly what happened to another Berriew man recently, Bernie Gill. He was refused access to a drug recommended by his oncologist. Sadly, Bernie died a few weeks ago.
I fully accept that its constitutionally proper to have different approaches to health care each side of the England /Wales border, whether it be access to free prescriptions or waiting times for treatment of variable length. But access to life-prolonging or life-saving drugs is a step too far for public acceptance, in my opinion. The issue is just too sensitive. The context in which the debate takes place is just too traumatic. Nothing does more damage to devolution in Montgomeryshire than this. Personally I do not join in the criticism of the Welsh Gov't over this issue, even if I do think the Cancer Drugs Fund is a good idea. But I do think the UK and Welsh Gov'ts should make a real effort to work together in this most sensitive of policy areas to deliver us a common England and Wales system.