National cancer director to review policy on NHS top-up care

In collaboration with the Press Association

The government is to review its policy on patients who want to top-up NHS cancer treatment with private care, the health secretary has announced.

Alan Johnson told MPs that he has asked Professor Mike Richards, the government's national cancer director, to prepare a report on patients who choose to pay for drugs that are not available to them on the NHS.

For the last 20 years, patients who have chosen to buy expensive new drugs have no longer been entitled to receive the basic package of NHS care.

However, the issue has drawn media attention after a number of patients were told they were no longer eligible for NHS care after opting to buy potentially life-saving drugs that were denied to them on the NHS.

For example, 64-year-old Linda O'Boyle paid ,000 for an eight-week course of the bowel cancer drug cetuximab and was subsequently denied NHS treatment, including chemotherapy, before later dying in March this year.

Her local MP John Baron said that the current policy was "cruel" and noted that co-payments are allowed in other areas of the NHS, such as dentistry.

Professor Richards said: "I welcome the opportunity to lead this review. This is a complex and sensitive issue and I would urge all interested parties, particularly patients, to share their views with me.

"We want to do everything we can for seriously ill patients who wish to explore every avenue to treat their condition, while upholding the founding principle of the NHS that treatment is based on clinical need not ability to pay."

Cancer Research UK has welcomed the opportunity to work with Professor Richards on this "vitally important issue".

Chief executive Harpal Kumar said: "On the one hand we need to safeguard the fundamental principle of equal access to NHS care, free at the point of use, regardless of ability to pay.

"But we need to find a way to respect patients' rights to use whatever resources they have to try to extend their lives provided they get proper clinical advice."

The review will be published by October 2008 and will make recommendations on how the existing policy and guidance should be clarified or improved.