Drug ban agony for former MP's wife

PUBLISHED: 18:00 03 September 2001 | UPDATED: 10:29 03 March 2010

The wife of former Ipswich MP Ken Weetch told today of her battle on two fronts - against a debilitating disease and health service rules.

THE wife of former Ipswich MP Ken Weetch today told of the battle she is fighting on two fronts – against a degenerative disease and against unfairness in the health service.

Evening Star exclusive, by Paul Geater Political Editor . . .

THE wife of former Ipswich MP Ken Weetch today told of the battle she is fighting on two fronts – against a degenerative disease and against unfairness in the health service.

Former teacher Audrey Weetch, who is in her 60s, was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease earlier in the summer.

She was told that a relatively-new drug Donepezil, also known as Aricept, would help her condition.

However Suffolk Health is not prepared to pay for the drug.

"In other places you can get this on prescription, but not here," she said.

"I was really upset, but the doctors said it would help me so we got it privately."

It will cost her family about £1,800 a year to buy the drug.

"We're lucky, we can afford this with our savings – but what about people who aren't so fortunate? What would happen to me if we didn't have the money?" she said.

Mrs Weetch said she was speaking out to highlight the "postcode lottery" that condemns people suffering from some conditions not to get the drugs they need.

"Don't be sorry for me," she said. "I'm enjoying my life and I'm lucky to be able to afford the treatment – but it isn't right that it should only be available for people who can afford it."

The drug was licenced by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in January, and health authorities were advised to allow its prescription on the NHS.

The chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, Harry Caton, said that since the drug was licenced the vast majority of health authorities across the country now allowed it to be prescribed.

"It is a scandal that Suffolk Health Authority is not allowing it to be given to people if doctors say it is appropriate.

"I have had a letter from government minister Lord Hunt which says that he is planning to instruct health authorities to allow this drug to be prescribed."

Mr Caton said the drug cost health authorities about £100 per month because they were able to buy it in bulk.

The average cost of looking after an Alzheimer's patient in a nursing home was £2,000 a month.

Mr Weetch said it was his wife's idea to go public on her condition to highlight the unfairness of the system.

"Audrey has a very independent mind. She wanted to make the point and that is what she is doing.

"She was a teacher for 30 years and I have been working for more than 40 years so we have some savings.

"As a Socialist who believes in the National Health Service it really hurt to buy drugs privately. However that was something we had to do – but my wife felt it was right to draw attention to the unfairness," he said.

Current MP Jamie Cann knew of Mrs Weetch's illness, and understood why the couple had decided to use their savings to buy the drugs.

"So long as health authorities are run locally and not under central control, you will always find that some will prescribe certain drugs while others will not – it is up to local people to decide the priorities," he said.

"But I have heard about these new treatments for Alzheimer's disease and it is clear that many people would benefit from them.

"It would be right to reconsider the position with regard to these drugs, but I'm sure most people wouldn't want all health matters to be decided centrally," he said.

A spokesman for Suffolk Health said NICE guidelines said the drug could only be prescribed if special memory clinics were set up under the guidance of hospital consultants.

But although this guidance was given on January 19, the health authority had still no firm plans for the clinics or a timescale to introduce them.

The spokesman said officials understood they should not prescribe the drugs without the clinics – however Mr Weetch said he and his wife were told by consultants that it was vital she should start taking the drug as soon as possible.

A spokeswoman for the Alzheimer's Society said NICE had not said the drug could only be prescribed once a Memory Clinic had been set up.

"It can only be prescribed by a consultant, and in an ideal world memory clinics would be set up. But that is not a condition and many health authorities will allow it to be prescribed without these clinics.

"Frankly Suffolk is using that as an excuse not to prescribe the drug, it is notorious for that," she said.

The NICE guidelines say that the drug should only prescribed by specialists and there should be an assessment in a clinic – Mrs Weetch and her husband were told about the drug by a specialist after she was seen in a clinic.

The Health Authority spokesman said the person who ultimately decides whether to allow the drug to be prescribed would be Suffolk Health chief executive David White, after consultation with pharmacy staff and specialists at the Suffolk from the Local Health Partnerships NHS Trust. However Mr White would not be available to comment on the case directly.

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