Punjab govt’s delayed response suspends free treatment to cancer patients

Published March 7, 2021
The stoppage of life-saving medicines to over 5,500 blood cancer patients enrolled at the government hospitals in Punjab has put their health and lives at a grave risk. — Reuters/File
The stoppage of life-saving medicines to over 5,500 blood cancer patients enrolled at the government hospitals in Punjab has put their health and lives at a grave risk. — Reuters/File

LAHORE: A mega project initiated by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government for free cancer treatment to registered poor patients came to a grinding halt after the firm hired to supply medicine stopped its services due to the incumbent government’s ‘delayed’ response to its frequent requests for revising the agreement which expired in June 2020.

The stoppage of life-saving medicines to over 5,500 blood cancer patients enrolled at the government hospitals in Punjab has put their health and lives at a grave risk because the [blood cancer] treatment and medicines have been highly expensive in the private sector.

In 2014, then chief minister Shehbaz Sharif had launched the Punjab CML Project in collaboration with Novartis Pharma Pakistan Limited under corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative for poor cancer patients.

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed between the then Punjab government and the Swiss company - Novartis - accordingly the same year.

Under the scheme, the company was to provide sustainable access immediately to patients who were on oral maintenance therapy throughout their life while the patients suffering from Chronic Myeloid Leukaemia (CML) and Gastro-intestinal Stromal Tumour (GST) were the major beneficiaries of this project.

Until 2017, the then government had provided funds to the tune of Rs13 billion [for free treatment to cancer patients].

However, the medicines supply to the registered patients faced interruption [off and on] since the incumbent government came to power.

Now, the project is in crisis after the pharmaceutical has stopped provision of medicines to the facilities due to the government’s alleged apathy towards the frequent requests of the firm to extend the period of MoU expired in June last year.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology had once [in 2015] made it clear in its statement, “Newly approved cancer drugs cost an average of $10,000 per month, with some as high as $30,000 per month. Just over a decade ago, the average was $4,500”.

Fed up by the government’s poor response, the pharmaceutical company in its recent and last letter conveyed its ultimate decision to discontinue free of cost medicine under the Punjab CML Project.

Through the letter, it unveiled the bottlenecks the project has been facing to ensure uninterrupted supply of the medicines to the registered patients.

In its Feb 28 letter it lamented that the company was persistently sending requests to the authorities concerned to sign a new MoU under the project to ensure continuous supply of free medicines to the patients.

“This is continuation of our letters forwarded on Oct 6, 26, and Dec 28, 2020, and as per communication made in the meeting held on Jan 19 this year in the committee room of specialised healthcare & medical education department (SH&MED)”, the letter reads.

The firm stated that though the MoU concluded in June 2020, the Novartis Pharma has been dispensing free medicines to all previously enrolled and new cancer patients registered with the project.

“We were verbally informed that the SH&MED Punjab is in the process of approval of signing of MoU for current fiscal year but so far most of the fiscal year has passed the fate of this project is obscure,” the firm said.

Even in the absence of any written agreement, it stated, the Novartis Pharma with the truest intentions relied entirely upon the verbal commitment made by the health department and have been continuously supporting the department in smooth running of the CML project.

In utter disappointment, the company said, “Due to the ambiguity in current status of the project and delay in the conclusion of the MoU signing process, we are no longer in a position to continue the treatment of cancer patients enrolled with the Punjab CML project from Feb 28 onwards.”

According to the reports coming from various hospitals the poor cancer patients were being denied medicines. They were being suggested to purchase the same privately.

It merits mentioning that in March 2019, the cancer patients had faced serious problem when the Punjab government stopped payment of Rs400 million to the company, making it conditional with the ‘third party evaluation’ of the project.

Specialised healthcare and medical education department secretary Barrister Nabeel Ahmad Awan said in a given financial year, it is only the last few months that the Punjab government paid for the medicines.

“For the rest, Novartis provides the medicines,” the health secretary said adding that according to his information the MoU has been approved by the chief minister before presenting it the cabinet for final nod.

Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2021

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