By a Newsnet reporter
The last two sessions of First Minister’s Questions has witnessed Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont focus on cancer treatment, specifically the availability of drugs in Scotland.
The focus by Ms Lamont has epitomised what Labour in Scotland have become, a party that will use anything in order to mount an attack on the SNP.
Central to Labour’s attack on the Scottish government is the apparent variance with England when it comes to the availability of some cancer drugs. One drug that has featured prominently is a drug called Cetuximab.
The company who manufacture the drug, Merck KGAA, issued guidelines in 2010 to the Individual Patient treatment Request (IPTR), they advised against prescribing the drug to Scottish NHS patients who had already undergone chemotherapy.
The IPTR was set up in order to open up a channel for access to drugs that had not been sanctioned by the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) - the body which approves new medicines for the NHS in Scotland.
However, the IPTR has come under attack from Scottish Labour who are claiming that the system in operation south of the border is leading to cancer patients in England having far greater access to these drugs than those living in Scotland.
On May 16th, Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont attacked free prescriptions and suggested some of the money could be better used paying for drugs such as Cetuximab.
In her opening question, she said:
"A packet of paracetamol costs 19p in Tesco. To dispense it on a free prescription costs the NHS £3.10 per prescription. The NHS spends £7.2m a year dispensing paracetamol.
"For that amount of money two hundred Scottish cancer patients could get Cetuximab to treat their condition for free for a year. While that treatment is free in England, Scots cancer patients have to pay around £3000 a month for it."
She added: "In the First Minister’s Scotland if you have a headache your prescription is free, but if you have cancer your prescription costs £3000 a month."
One week later, the Scottish Labour leader again brought up cancer drugs, this time describing the system in Scotland as "unfair".
Following Ms Lamont’s initial attack on the system that operates in Scotland, BBC Scotland online decided it should be the top political story in Scotland that day. Incredibly, when the Scottish Labour leader repeated the attack one week later, BBC Scotland online did exactly the same thing again and made it the top story.
Four days after the initial attack, BBC Scotland Radio phone-in programme Call Kaye covered the issue. In an uncomfortable broadcast, cancer victims were urged to phone in and detail how the system had let them down. The programme also highlighted Johann Lamont’s attack on free prescriptions and challenged SNP Minister Alex Neil to defend the SNP's free prescription policy.
What neither of these reports mentioned was the actual stance taken by Scottish Labour on both the Individual Patient treatment Request and the ending of free prescriptions to pay for more cancer drugs.
In 2011 Scottish Labour MSP Mary Fee openly attacked a suggestion from the Scottish Conservatives that the cost of cancer drugs in Scotland should be paid for by scrapping free prescriptions in Scotland.
Speaking in a debate on cancer drug availability, the Labour MSP attacked the Scottish Conservatives for planning to re-introduce prescription charges in order to pay for cancer drugs.
Ms Fee said: "I find it worrying that the Conservatives would pay for the cancer drugs fund by bringing back prescription fees.
"To me this is a tax for certain illnesses to pay for others."
The apparent support for free prescriptions and the rejection of a Tory plan to re-introduce prescription charges - to pay for cancer drugs - lasted less than two years.
As ever, the Scottish Labour party are being less than honest with those cancer sufferers on whose plight they have hitched their latest anti-SNP campaign.
Scottish Labour are already on record as opposing the cancer fund system that operates in England. Indeed speaking in September 2011, the party’s Health spokesperson Jackie Baillie didn’t just rule out an English style fund, she confirmed her party supported the very system – IPTR - they are now criticising.
Speaking in a debate in the Scottish Parliament, Ms Baillie described IPTR as:
"…an innovation to improve our existing system which we absolutely approve of. It does enable clinicians to make judgements in the interests of their patients."
The Labour MSP added that the IPTR was supposed to "make the medicine available to those who will benefit it most" – a key phrase.
Baillie also warned that there appeared to be failings in the system and urged the Scottish government to provide a measurement of how many requests for drugs were being made and what the success rate of these requests were, citing claims of routine rejections.
There was one other aspect of Ms Baillie’s speech that day when she said: "We value the work being done on value based pricing of medicine."
Value based pricing of medicine is a method of establishing the value of a drug based on whether the additional health expected to be gained from its use exceeds the health forgone as other NHS treatments are displaced by its additional cost.
In short, if the cost of one drug means that more patients will suffer because another cannot be purchased then this has to be factored in.
So, in late 2011 we know that Scottish Labour absolutely approved of IPTR. We know that they were not calling for a blanket approval of all IPTR requests, but only to those who would benefit most and we know that they were concerned about the rate of success of requests.
The Scottish government collated the figures of successful applications to those submitted and found the success rate of requests stands at two thirds - a high figure by any standard.
So is this enough to satisfy Scottish Labour?
Apparently not, for in February 2013 Scottish Labour who had previously "absolutely" approved of the IPTR system, according to Ms Baillie now considered it "no longer acceptable".
Coinciding with Scottish Labour’s new found ‘disapproval’ of IPTR, the party began highlighting individual and sometimes desperate cases of cancer sufferers whose requests had been refused.
Speaking to the Daily Record, Jackie Baillie also ruled out the cancer fund system operating in England.
She said this was because Labour: "genuinely believe there are other equally serious conditions that required improved access to medicines too".
She also said the cancer drugs fund in England had led to "a bit of a postcode lottery" in some places, "which is not desirable".
The Labour MSP then highlighted the case of Ann Fisher, a mother-of-three from Greenock who suffers from cancer.
"She can't get access to drugs here that would be available if she lived in England,"
It’s this aspect of Scottish Labour’s stance that is most distasteful if not confusing. Using patients who are quite understandably desperate is unbecoming to say the least. But to encourage these people to fight for a system that Scottish Labour itself describes as "not desirable" is beyond belief.
The attack on a system they initially supported, despite the improvements already carried out and the reviews still taking place, is typical Scottish Labour. We see this behaviour time and again on issues such as the council tax freeze and free University education.
They get away with it because the Scottish media refuses to police the party.
But why attack the IPTR system now?
The highlighting of individual patient cases is usually reserved for the period of election campaigning where parties are allowed to politicise any and all issues. Most people remember the infamous ‘glue ear’ case raised by Labour in the 1992 general election that highlighted the length of time a young girl had waited for an operation.
It remains to be seen if Scottish Labour are employing this tactic in an attempt at encouraging the Scottish media to use the issue in the weeks leading up to the Aberdeen Donside by-election to be held next month.
The Sunday Times ran a story this weekend based on Scottish Labour’s attacks.
We will be watching closely to see if this issue is indeed used by the media to attack the SNP in the lead-up to the by-election.
If it comes to pass that this does indeed become a media campaign then, given the reasons behind the need for a by-election, it will mark a particularly unsavoury signpost on the Scottish Labour road.