Changes to cancer coverage a challenge to some patients, but benefits population: Rahayu
The changes to insurance coverage for cancer treatment may be challenging for some patients, but "we need to look at the bigger picture and that is to reduce the ever-increasing drug prices", said Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam.
Unless something is done to slow the rapidly escalating cost of cancer treatment, "cancer drugs will eventually be unaffordable for the majority of cancer patients" she told Parliament on Tuesday (July 5).
From September, MediShield Life and Medisave can only be used to cover approved outpatient cancer treatments that are listed on the Cancer Drug List. They cannot pay for treatments not on the list.
This will also apply to Integrated Shield Plans from April next year.
Replying to a question from Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) on how many patients will be adversely affected by the changes, Ms Rahayu said this number is "constantly fluctuating", but about 10 per cent of treatments used in the public sector are not covered.
She did not give a number for those affected in the private sector, which is likely to be higher.
Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) asked if patients who have rare cancers who need treatment that is not on the list, can appeal, and if so, how long does it take for a decision to be made.
Ms Rahayu said: "It usually takes about five months from submission until the funding decision. And funding implementation typically occurs within four to six months after a funding decision has been made."
She added that about 50 more treatments have been added to the list since it was launched last year. Treatments on the list have to be both effective, as well as cost effective.
Mr Giam pointed out that "for individual cancer patients for whom time is of the essence, anything more than one week, may be too long to wait for a decision on a drug subsidy approval.
He asked: "Can we therefore have a National Cancer Care Appeals Board which can make rigorous yet speedy decisions to subsidise drugs for these patients to get the life-saving drugs that they need?"
Ms Rahayu said such patients can be referred to the public sector where their treatment can be assessed to see if they are appropriate. If they are, such patients can "get discretionary funding that's available for them and thereby getting treatment at a far lower cost".
Reiterating the Ministry of Health's rationale for the changes, Ms Rahayu said: "It provides the incentive for pharmaceutical companies to price their drugs more reasonably so as to benefit from financing coverage."
Since the announcement in August last year, the public sector has seen an average price cut of 30 per cent for cancer drugs, with some prices falling by as much as 60 per cent.
However, there is no similar drop in price of drugs sold to the private sector, which continues to pay more for many drugs than countries like Australia and South Korea.
Ms Ng Ling Ling (Ang Mo Kio GRC) asked if the cheaper prices negotiated for the public sector can be extended to the private sector.
Ms Rahayu said the ministry will look into it, but letting the private sector buy at the same price requires the agreement of the drug companies.
She added: "The feasibility of applying negotiated drug prices to the private sector really depends on whether the price controls can be introduced to ensure cost savings are passed on to the patients".