Greg Hunt, MP

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt went public on 27 October to promote the government’s decision to list on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme a costly immunotherapy cancer drug that will give more than 1000 Australians with advanced lung cancer access to the discounted medication.

Without PBS subsidy Keytruda would cost around $188,000 a year, or $11,300 per script. Patients will now pay $39.50 per script, or $6.40 for concessionals. In so doing, patients will be able to avoid chemotherapy. The drug is delivered intravenously, usually every three weeks.

Keytruda’s road to full PBS approval has been a long and winding one, starting on 28 June 2015 when then-PM Tony Abbott and then-Health Minister Sussan Ley issued a media release headed “New drug listing Keytruda to treat melanoma” [lung cancer was not within its ambit at this stage].

They said the government would invest $57 million to list Keytruda on the PBS, which “will improve quality of life for 1,100 Australian patients and make the $150,000 per year treatment affordable…

“Treatment using pembrolizumab (Keytruda) currently costs patients with metastatic melanoma up to $156,130 per year without taxpayer subsidy through the PBS. Patients will now pay $6.10 if they are concessional patients or $37.70 for general patients.”

But the story did not end there, for in April of the following year the drug, described as “much hyped” in a report by The Australian, was denied a full listing on the PBS after an advisory group had ruled there was not enough evidence to justify taxpayers footing the massive gap for its dispensing

It was widely reported at the time that Keyruda had saved the life of high-profile businessman Ron Walker who had gone to the USA for treatment. He died in January this year, aged 78.

After this convoluted journey the drug, manufactured by MSD Australia, is now back in the good books and back on the PBS, thanks to a concerted push from various quarters including the ‘maverick’ MP Bob Katter, whose cross-bench sway may be helpful on such matters.

In his announcement Minister Hunt said Repatha, a drug used to treat high cholesterol is also being listed on the PBS. This will help about 77,000 Australians with a genetically inherited risk of high cholesterol to access a drug that helps to lower "bad cholesterol" in the blood.