Decision making in the spotlight
2004 - 2008
If conflict is essential to a good story, PHARMAC has been rich material for New Zealand’s media, as controversies over key funding decisions, numerous lawsuits and emotionally charged campaigns for funding medicines have made headlines.
PHARMAC had little precedent in New Zealand back in 1993, so the agency needed to work hard to articulate to the public what its mission was. That meant working closely with the news media.
At the same time, communications consultants and lobbyists hired by the pharmaceutical industry were developing a narrative that suggested PHARMAC’s presence could see New Zealanders miss out on important medicines and that research and development investment here would evaporate.
“The media attacks were pretty impressive,” former medical director Peter Moodie recalls.
“When we first started, the media was being fed stories from the companies. There were passionate advocacy groups, that were really lobby groups, that made headlines.”
Founding general manager David Moore often found himself facing not only a multimillion dollar advertising campaign behind a drug up for funding consideration, but an associated blitz of media coverage.
“We became more active in our language,” he says.
“This is an area where it helped to be an independent agency, on the fringe of government, with independent governance.”
Fronting up to the media and being proactive with telling their story was essential if PHARMAC was to justify its evidence-based decision making.
PHARMAC’s legal adviser Simon Watt remembers the genuinely meaningful personal stories the media latched onto, highlighting the gravity of PHARMAC’s decision making.
“It felt like PHARMAC was always ruffling feathers and therefore always under attack about what it was doing,” he says.
“PHARMAC had to find its own way to respond and deal with that.”
“The media attacks were pretty impressive.”
– Peter Moodie
Newspaper editorials would, on occasion, set aside editorial neutrality to advocate for a medicine to be funded.
The answer was openness, accessibility and a proactive media strategy.
“We made good use of the regional newspapers, who were always short of copy,” says Moore.
“We made sure that the Annual Review was published around Christmas time, so it could get picked up in January weekend newspapers.
“We found we got quite good reach, right around the country.”
Over the years, the general tone of coverage of PHARMAC and its decisions changed.
“It was the slowly changing attitude of the medical profession and of the public as well. The media grew up a lot in those early days,” says Moodie.
The media’s growing acceptance of and support for PHARMAC’s role is reflected in a New Zealand Listener editorial published in March 2016, at the height of public debate over the funding of Keytruda (pembrolizumab).
“Inevitably, politics and simple human compassion have aligned on one side of this issue, with Pharmac’s firmly evidence-based assessment on the other,” the Listener pointed out.
“Pharmac must prevail. We have in this centralised drug-buying and funding agency a world-leading model,” it concluded.
A Sunday Star Times headline from later in 2016, ‘Anatomy of a drug deal’, went inside the negotiations over Keytruda.
“Two plots playing out side-by-side – one publicly, the other backstage – the actors in each, acutely aware of lives hanging in the balance,” wrote Sunday Star Times reporter Stacey Kirk.
PHARMAC has had to weather its fair share of negative headlines and column inches of criticism. But overall, its current and past leaders agree that the media’s coverage of PHARMAC has been fair, and that the media plays a vital role in holding it to account.
“Overall, I’d have to say we get pretty good press, on balance,” says McLauchlan.
Adds Moodie: “It’s a credit to the New Zealand media that they became more insightful and started to ask more questions.”
Last updated: 13 September 2018