Pharmac under fire over asthma

pharmacNew Zealand - Government drug-buying agency Pharmac is under fire from asthma sufferers as it again considers sole funding of an unpopular alternative to Ventolin.

Pharmac's decision last year to subsidise only one salbutamol inhaler, Salamol, failed as asthmatics overwhelmingly rejected the cheaper option.

Hospital emergency department doctors reported an increase in admissions of children who had refused to use Salamol because of the taste.

Pharmac backed down on its decision after receiving hundreds of complaints about the effectiveness, taste and delivery problems with the new inhaler and continued to subsidise Ventolin.

However, Pharmac is again considering a sole-supply arrangement with a generic drug, according to a tender document it has sent to pharmaceutical suppliers.

Any sole-supply agreement would last until June 2010.

Asthma New Zealand has called the move "callous, arrogant and short-sighted".

Executive director Gerry Hanna said the proposal gave "little regard to patient care" and made no sense.

"Attempting to switch hundreds of thousands of people by forcing them on to a different medicine, when they are doing well enough with their current one, is plain stupidity," he said.

About 500,000 New Zealanders use metered-dose inhalers to relieve asthma symptoms due to airflow obstruction, which can otherwise become life-threatening.

Ventolin has been used for more than 30 years.

Occasional asthmatic Boyd Warren said the smaller Salamol inhalers did not deliver a strong, even spray of vapour as Ventolin inhalers did. Warren, 33, of Christchurch, said the taste was "an unpleasant, fruity chemical taste", and he could understand why children in particular rejected Salamol.

While cost-cutting was the goal of many organisations, Pharmac should not be among them, he said. "This is about health, for God's sake."

Pharmac medical director Peter Moodie confirmed the inhalers were up for tender again.

He said price would not be the only consideration when tenders closed in late February, and interested parties such as Asthma New Zealand would be consulted.

Moodie said Pharmac had learnt from its experience of trying to introduce a sole-supply alternative.

"We had it (Salamol) independently tested and re-tested in both New Zealand and Australia and we found no problems with it."