By Mark Metherell
Delays in the approval of new prescription drugs for cancer, diabetes and several other conditions are likely as turmoil deepens over the Federal Government's plan to dump the leadership of its pharmaceutical advisory body.
In an unusual step, three members of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC) yesterday declared in an open letter their concern that its "independence and capability is being undermined".
Their protest centres on the likely removal of the committee's chairman, Professor Don Birkett, and Professor David Henry, whom they described as "world experts on drug economics".
Other sources say that the uncertainty generated by the Government's surprise move to legislate quickly for sweeping changes to the committee next month will make it very difficult for a new committee to properly assess drugs scheduled for decision in March.
The committee recommends to the Health Minister, Dr Wooldridge, which drugs should be included in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and thus qualify for the $3.6 billion a year in prescription subsidies.
Drugs for cancer and diabetes are to be assessed early in the new year, along with medicines for epilepsy, heroin addiction, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis and asthma.
Decisions from the March meeting alone are expected to involve the spending of tens of millions of dollars a year of public money, about two-thirds of it going to the drug industry.
The three who signed the protest letter - Professor Rosemary Munro, a Sydney clinical microbiologist; Dr Sian Hughes, a Melbourne pediatrician; and Dr Mary Cohn, a Brisbane GP - said the committee would lose the expertise needed to make decisions with enormous health and financial implications for taxpayers.
"The only explanation for this is external pressure," they said. "The PBAC must be above the influence of government, the pharmaceutical industry or any special interest groups."
A Government spokesman said yesterday that a new 12-member committee would be named next month.
The Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Senator Grant Tambling, said all future appointments to the committee would be people of high professional standing. "Nominations have been sought from a wide range of professional and consumer bodies," he said.
The Government's changes, especially the likely axing of Professor Henry of Newcastle University, who heads the economics subcommittee, have been linked to drug industry concerns about the impact Australia's price restraints on drugs has on the international market.
Both the Government and the Australian
Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association have denied that industry pressure
has played any role in the changes.