NHS 'U-turn' over drug trial money

Pills Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption The letter refers to excess costs the NHS has to meet if patients are being given experimental drugs in trials

Letters sent to hospital chiefs and cancer research leaders by NHS England suggesting funding for care of patients taking part in drug trials might be cut were "incorrect", it has said.

The letter sent to health bosses in London blamed the "financial climate".

NHS England has now over-ruled the letter, which was obtained by Labour and seen by the BBC. It says it will be writing to area teams to clarify.

Cancer Research UK said the NHS "had to keep its side of the bargain".

Excess treatment costs (ETCs) cover the care of patients involved in drug trials which are not already covered by the pharmaceutical or academic research body involved.

Traditionally the NHS has covered these costs for patients who wish to take part in the trials.

'National position'

The letter from the head of specialised commissioning at NHS England London Region, dated 21 November, was written to hospital trust medical directors and leaders in the field of cancer research.

It said: "I am sure you will appreciate that in the current financial climate, the primary call for resources is to support clinical service provision for established service priorities.

"To this end, the NHS England London Region Area Team is unable to identify any uncommitted resources which could be used to support ETCs for clinical trials.

"This is the national position which is being adopted, in respect of all current requests for ETCs."

Andy Burnham, Labour's shadow health secretary, called the withdrawal of the letter "a U-turn".

He added: "This was announced as a new national policy to be rolled out and we are not convinced that this is simply an inaccurate letter.

"[Health Secretary] Jeremy Hunt must make a full statement to clarify what has happened."

Mr Burnham said the letter "indicates the growing financial crisis in the NHS".

Speaking to BBC Breakfast, he said the episode had been "shambolic" and it was clear the health service needed more money.

Mr Burnham added that Labour had been criticised for pledging to introduce a "mansion tax" to help fund the NHS but said it would do it because the health service was the party's top priority.


Cancer Research UK, which is currently supporting drug trials involving about 35,000 patients, said it had concerns.

Prof Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician, said: "The partnership between the NHS and organisations which fund research, such as Cancer Research UK, has been a great success story.

"We lead the world in being able to offer patients participation in clinical trials, but all this will be undone if the NHS cannot keep its side of the bargain."

A spokesman for NHS England said: "We strongly support medical research and we will fund excess treatment costs in line with the national rules, so these local letters were incorrect and are being withdrawn."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Research in the NHS is vital and has this government's strong support.

"We have asked NHS England to set out how they will deliver their objective to promote research and ensure the payment of excess treatment costs."

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