Ministers have announced a £50million interim cancer drugs fund ahead of the creation of the fully-fledged fund giving effect to the Conservative election manifesto promise, expected to be implemented in April 2011.

Prior to the election, the Conservative Party indicated that raising the threshold for employers’ national insurance contributions would free up £200million from the NHS budget to create a fund to ensure that no cancer patient would be refused access to drugs licensed since 2005, if their clinicians recommended them, even where the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) had decided the drugs were not cost-effective. However, Quality Minister for Health, Earl Howe, has now said that the Government is unable to guarantee that the fund will have the £200million budget initially pledged.

The interim fund, resourced with the money originally destined for Labour’s Personal Care at Home Act, will be put in place in October 2010 and will be made available through clinically-led regional panels. The anticipation is that existing PCT funding routes, including individual funding requests, will have been explored and exhausted before a call is made on the regional funds. Strategic Health Authorities have already been informed of the likely allocation by region based on the weighted capitation formula, with figures varying between 2.8m for the North East and 7.6m for London.

The National Clinical Director for Cancer, Professor Sir Mike Richards, in presenting his recent report on international variations in drug usage and noting that the usage of new cancer drugs was relatively low in the UK compared with international averages, said that he welcomed the additional £50million being made available this year. Critics of the fund however, have said that it both undermines the work of NICE and the current emphasis on evidence-based allocation of scarce resources and instils a huge funding bias towards cancer care, to the detriment of patients suffering from motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia and other chronic and degenerative conditions.  

A consultation on the final scheme is scheduled to begin in the autumn and final details will be released after the conclusion of the spending review.