There has been mixed reaction to the news that NICE is losing its power to reject new drugs that it thinks do not show value for money. The change, announced last week, means that NICE (the National Institute for health and Clinical Excellence) will still exist but its power will be much curtailed - it can provide advice but it will no longer control the NHS drugs purse.
Initial reaction is that this might be a good idea. NICE has long been the ogre of the tabloids as there is a real human cost behind every drug that it says the NHS will not fund. Especially as these drugs have been proven by pharmaceutical companies to have some benefit, it's just that NICE thinks the benefit is minimal compared to the price demanded by its manufacturers.
But although NICE might have been sidelined, there is still no more money for the NHS. In fact despite the coalition honouring its promise to give a real-term increase to the NHS purse, the NHS is actually facing a tightening of its budget as it faces future increases of only 0.8% a year compared to a previous average increase of 4% a year.
So NICE's powers might be gone, but the rationing of drugs is still a reality that the NHS must face. Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, has outlined plans for the responsibility for deciding if a drug is of value to be transferred to local PCTs. This responsibility will then ultimately be handed over to GP consortium']s if Lansley NHS reforms are passed.
The abolition of NICE will clearly exacerbate the problem of the postcode lottery - whereby someone living in one borough will access drugs, and often enjoy a longer life expectancy, than someone in another borough. This may well cause nasty tabloid headlines but local restrictions won't cause quite the hostility towards the Government that a nationwide ban has done in the past. Mike Hobday, the head of policy for MacMillan Cancer Support hints that the negative public portrayal of NICE had a hand in its downfall when he said: "NICE has too often misread the public mood in rejecting clinically effective drugs for rare cancers".
And the Government has already hedged its bets when it comes to cancer, the most emotive and political of all health problems, by promising a stand-alone cancer drug fund that patients can apply to if their local NHS won't fund a particular treatment.
Drug rationing is an inevitability of the NHS, as are the hostile headlines it creates, and drug restrictions will continue to be enforced whether NICE controls the purse or 152 local bureaucrats do instead. So the reduction of NICE's powers may well turn out to be a smokes and mirrors exercise to avoid the public recognising the true funding problems the NHS will face over the coming decade.