Cancer treatment urgent funds plea

PUBLIC hospitals could be hit with an influx of cancer patients from private hospitals next month if the Commonwealth does not boost funding for chemotherapy, Victorian Health Minister David Davis says.

The shift would cause waiting lists for chemotherapy to blow out, pharmacists say, because the public system is already operating at capacity.

On Tuesday, private hospitals warned that reforms to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme was making it too costly for them to deliver chemotherapy services, and that as of next month some may close their cancer services, forcing patients to find treatment elsewhere.

Private services, which care for about 60 per cent of chemotherapy patients in Australia, may also start charging about $100 per chemotherapy infusion - a price hike that could set patients back thousands of dollars for a course of treatment. At the moment, PBS subsidies mean patients pay a maximum $35.40 for an entire course.

Doctors and pharmacists say the additional fees combined with fewer private services will cause patients to seek treatment in public hospitals that are already stretched.

The chief medical officer at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, Professor John Zalcberg, said while he was optimistic the issue would be resolved in coming weeks, his hospital's chemotherapy service was close to capacity and would require more funding to take on additional patients from the private system.

He said while the hospital aimed for 95 per cent of patients to start chemotherapy within 14 days of it being prescribed, only about 85 per cent of patients were starting on time due to a range of reasons, including limited resources. Professor Zalcberg said very few patients waited beyond three weeks.

''Patients want their treatment, doctors want to give them their treatment … everybody wants to get the treatment under way,'' he said.

President of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia Sue Kirsa said she had sought urgent meetings with state and territory health ministers to formulate contingency plans because the public system could not accommodate the thousands of patients who receive their chemotherapy in private services.

A spokeswoman for Mr Davis said the Victorian government was monitoring the situation and consulting with the major cancer services. He had also written to federal Health Minister Tanya Plibersek to express his concern.

''Public health services delivering cancer treatments will face greater pressure as patients divert from private services unless the Commonwealth reverses its ill-conceived decision,'' the spokeswoman said

''The private sector are important providers of cancer services, including chemotherapy. The Victorian government will continue to work to ensure that all cancer patients, whether public or private, are able to receive affordable cancer treatment in a timely manner and as close to home as is safely possible.''

In a written statement, Ms Plibersek said the PBS reforms were bringing the cost of medicines down and that the government was committed to providing chemotherapy to patients. She did not say how the government would fix the current funding issue, but said it was happy to talk to pharmacists about the matter.

jmedew@theage.com.au

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