KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 16 — The Ministry of Health has suspended a scheme by pharmaceutical companies that provides expensive new medications, which are unavailable in public hospitals here, for free.
The move will potentially affect thousands of patients suffering from cancer and rare diseases.
The Health Ministry’s Pharmaceutical Services Programme website announced last Monday the temporary suspension of the Patient Access Scheme (PASc) that involved free provision of drugs “until further notice”.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) also sent a letter to pharmaceutical companies yesterday to inform them that it has decided to put on hold all PASc applications involving free medications for the time being, after a meeting between the ministry’s Pharmaceutical Services Programme and Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah on August 9.
“For YBhg Datuk/ Datin/ Sir/ Madam’s attention, this division has been requested to obtain views from the National Audit Department on the issue of civil servants’ integrity in the acceptance of free packs upon the procurement of drugs,” Dr Kamaruzaman Saleh, director of the Health Ministry’s Pharmacy Practice & Development Division, said in the letter dated yesterday sighted by Malay Mail.
An industry source explained that the MOH was treating the PASc — in which many pharmaceutical companies provide certain expensive innovative drugs to a limited number of patients for free after selling other medicines to the government — as if it was a “gift” that violated government ethics and integrity guidelines.
“Putting this programme in the same classification as if was some form of ‘imbuhan’ or unethical incentive such as a paid holiday in Bali is not only erroneous, it risks harming and denying the chance and possibility of patients to be treated with better and much needed treatment options," the source said.
Malay Mail understands that incoming PASc applications were suspended while pending ones were denied. The fate of current PASc programmes is uncertain.
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said last month that ministers would be prohibited from receiving expensive gifts like vehicles and they would only be allowed to accept food, flowers, or pewter plaques.
Malay Mail reported in 2016 Roche Malaysia as saying that since 2007, it has helped more than 4,000 cancer patients get access to medicines through its patient assistance programme, or PASc, that provides drugs for free.
The pharmaceutical company told Malay Mail then that most of its life-extending medications were provided through that programme, as many of these drugs are not available on the MOH Medicines Formulary that lists the drugs provided in MOH hospitals here.
A kidney cancer patient, who was taking a targeted therapy drug he received for free on Pfizer’s patient assistance programme that was not available in public hospitals here, told Malay Mail in 2016 he could live a normal life despite his Stage Four diagnosis in 2006.
According to the Health Ministry’s PASc proposal submission guideline, the scheme includes both existing drugs in the MOH Medicines Formulary and those outside it.
“Patient Access Scheme (PASc) is a scheme proposed by pharmaceutical companies and agreed upon by the Ministry of Health (MOH), Malaysia in order to improve access to medicines which are likely to have high budget impact either due to high treatment cost per patient and/or large volumes of use,” said the guideline.
“This scheme may address the rising cost pressure, consumer demands and uncertainties, while attempting to provide patient access to innovative care within finite budgets.”
When contacted for comment on the suspension of the PASc, Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye told Malay Mail: “We postponed PASc implementation at this point of time for us to have further discussion with Audit Negara”.
“Need to discuss internally to comply with audit standard,” he said.
Dr Noor Hisham did not respond to queries outside office hours.