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The Bulletin: Pharmac review unlikely to give patient advocates what they want

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Pharmac review unlikely to give patient advocates what they want, feedback shows confusion on managed isolation communication, and National wants more generous Covid leave scheme.

An independent review into Pharmac has been announced, and will focus on how and how quickly decisions are made at the drug-buying agency. It will be chaired by former Consumer NZ chief Sue Chetwin.Pharmac exists to decide how to group-buy certain medicines, so that they are more readily available to patients in New Zealand. It results in generally much cheaper drug prices than what many other countries get – but can offer little help for those who need drugs that don’t get funded. As Stuff reports, the review will consider “the transparency and accessibility of decision making processes, and equity”, as well as looking at how quickly new medicines get on the list – but won’t give a lot of patient groups what they really want.

A sticking point with how Pharmac currently operates is around negotiations with major drug companies. Because these are commercial relationships, it is in the interests of those companies for Pharmac to have more money to spend. Some patient advocacy groups have associations with lobbyists for this industry – that was explored in this Newsroom feature last year. One of those groups, Patient Voice Aotearoa, put out a release welcoming the review, who say New Zealand has fallen behind the rest of the world on funding, and say access to many newer drugs should be opened up. While the interests are aligned, it’s impossible to say the patient groups themselves are making the calls cynically – after all, members often have directly affected loved ones who miss out on medicines.

But it means the issue never really goes away politically – despite Pharmac decisions being made at arm’s-reach from politicians. Stories of unfunded medicines are all too frequently tragic – a recent example coming from Stuff, in which a terminally ill Timaru mother, who is struggling to come up with the money to keep paying for a drug that is doing wonders to prolong her life amid bowel cancer. Such decisions on funding could easily seem cosmically unfair.

The government seems unlikely to increase funding any further, reports Newsroom. PM Ardern described the system as “world-leading”, and noted that the government  previously announced another $160 million pharmaceutical funding over four years. Whether that is enough to take Pharmac out of the political arena is another matter altogether.


I asked for your feedback on experiences with testing and self-isolation instructions, and a clear majority of respondents had good news, saying they had been given the correct information in a clear way. However, that hasn’t been the experience for some, who noted issues including unclear printed materials, verbal instructions not given, and rapidly changing instructions. I’ve collected some of the feedback in this piece, along with an explanation of what the current rules are. Thanks heaps to everyone who got in touch, and apologies if I didn’t get a chance to respond.

Meanwhile, in other news around this issue: A range of leading figures say they want communication to improve, after the KFC worker case incident, reports NewshubOne News reports community leaders are calling for Covid information to be distributed in a wider range of languages, particularly for people whose first language isn’t English. And Stuff reports National is calling for a more generous self-isolation scheme, so that it pays 100% of lost wages directly to people who have to stay home.


An ‘alternative lifestyle’ festival is refusing to pay refunds after having to postpone due to Covid. Jihee Junn has done some digging here, and found that applies even to those who bought more expensive tickets described as fully refundable. I’d also encourage you to read this piece on the basis of this quite wonderful bit of digital sleuthing – here’s a quick excerpt:

“On the NZ Spirit Festival website, it currently states no refunds for festival passes would be offered if “a postponement date within three months of the original date of the festival is provided”. However, a Google cached version of the same page shows this statement wasn’t originally included prior to the postponement.” 


We’ve been doing our utmost to bring you all the coverage you need of the Covid-19 outbreaks and lockdowns. And we can’t do it without the generous support of our members. If you want to help out our news team with this and other big stories, please sign up here.


Private sector leaders want more information from the government about the Covid strategy, and what success looks like. The NBR (soft paywall) reports the call came as both an offer to help, and a request for more clarity. In particular, they want more detail around the border strategy, vaccine rollout, and testing capacity.


I wouldn’t normally put a University article in this section, but given I saw it first as a republish on Newshub I thought it fit. The University of Auckland has lifted the lid on how some temporary migrant workers are operating in conditions little different to slavery, “from pauper’s wages to forced labour.” It isn’t written like an academic paper – rather it takes the form of a write-through, where facts from the research are interspersed with quotes from the researcher. All in all, it’s an important story, well told.


It’s a big day for the book world, with the announcement of the Ockham Book Awards shortlist. Catherine Woulfe has charged through the list, giving a rundown on what has been picked out, along with a commentary on the work that has and hasn’t made the cut.


In a bit of world news, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has been convicted for corruption. France 24 reports he intends to appeal his conviction, after he was “found guilty of offering a plum job in Monaco to a judge in exchange for inside information on an inquiry into his campaign finances.” At this stage, he is unlikely to physically set foot inside a prison, as two of his three years are suspended, he’ll be on home detention instead.


If you love The Spinoff but want a bit more of our cultural side, here’s an email to check out: For a weekly email digest of all our video and podcast content, along with other recommendations in your inbox every Wednesday lunchtime, subscribe to the Rec Room newsletter. Included in today’s edition will be the latest episode of Scratched: Aotearoa’s Lost Sporting Legends, where we meet Precious McKenzie to hear the incredible story of how he came to call New Zealand home.


Got some feedback about The Bulletin, or anything in the news? Drop us a line at thebulletin@thespinoff.co.nz

Right now on The Spinoff: Public health expert Robert Beaglehole makes a stirring call for an agency that recognises that health and economic goals are intertwined. Jackie Clark defends the families involved in the latest Covid outbreak, saying critics don’t know what their lives are like. Emily Writes has some timely advice for keeping kids engaged during lockdown. Michael Andrew writes about a programme teaching kids financial literacy skills, so that they can take those skills beyond the classroom. And Tara Ward introduces the women who will be attempting to win the new Bachelor’s heart.


For a feature today, an analysis of the very wealthy and how much tax they are and aren’t paying. I had meant to share this one earlier because it’s important work, but then Covid crowded it out. So, Thomas Coughlan at Stuff has combed through IRD research and found that some of the very wealthy are paying tax at rates lower than the lowest income earner rates. Someone, perhaps a government of some sort, should probably do something about that. Here’s an excerpt:

According to Treasury, a full 42 per cent of High Wealth Individuals (HWIs) pay less than 10 per cent of their total income in tax.

That is lower than the lowest income tax rate which is 10.5 per cent, which income earners pay on income up to $14,000.

The reason for the disparity between New Zealand’s wealthiest people and regular salary and wage earners is that the wealthiest New Zealanders tend to earn a large part of their income in parts of the economy that are either taxed lightly or not taxed at all.


For a sense of how far the Silver Ferns have come in the last few years, they comfortably beat Australia last night and it wasn’t much of a shock. The NZ Herald reports they’ve taken a 1-0 lead in the four game Constellation Cup, which has not been won by New Zealand since 2012. The game was won through keeping hands on the ball, and making the most of opposition errors. In fairness, Australian netball suffered much worse from Covid last year than New Zealand’s game, so the visitors came into this with a weaker buildup.


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