‘Life-changing’: Opdualag added to PBS

Michelle Wisbey

22/01/2024 3:06:49 PM

The combination treatment for advanced melanoma will be subsidised from 1 February and is expected to benefit almost 1000 patients every year.

Doctor conducting skin cancer check on man's back.
Melanoma is currently the third most common cancer in Australia.

Melanoma sufferers will soon have greater access to treatment, thanks to a new listing on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).
From 1 February this year, Australians with advanced melanoma will have access to the combination medicine nivolumab with relatlimab (sold as Opdualag).
The listing will see the treatment’s priced slashed from around $315,000 per course of treatment and is expected to benefit around 940 patients each year.
Listed for the first time, the combination of immunotherapies is prescribed to patients with advanced stage melanoma which has spread and cannot be removed by surgery.
Dr Jeremy Hudson, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Dermatology, told newsGP the move is a ‘huge step for accessibility’.
‘Combination immunotherapy medications are prohibitively expensive for patients, and this medication gives many Australians with advanced melanoma another treatment option,’ he said.
‘While we are considered to have the world’s gold standard in melanoma detection, Australia is still second behind the USA in melanoma mortality.’
Melanoma claims the lives of around 1300 patients annually and is the third-most common cancer in Australia with 16,800 people diagnosed each year.
Dr Hudson said the cheaper treatment will offer an extra option for patients currently living with the cancer.
‘Combination immune checkpoint inhibitors may be more effective than individual immune checkpoint inhibitors, although significant side effects such as fatigue, rash and gut issues may occur,’ he said.
‘The new combination of relatlimab-nivolumab seems to give significantly less side effects, which is a positive.
‘We will still need longer-term data to tell how the mortality rates compare.’
Melanoma is the most common cancer affecting younger Australians aged 20–39, but sustained awareness campaigns are beginning to break through.
Dr Hudson said while the public’s knowledge of skin cancers is improving, there is still a long way to go.
‘Australians are great when it comes to melanoma, and most have a lot of common sense and awareness of sun safety,’ he said.
‘However, we still have a lot of improvement that needs to be made by schools in adhering to sun safety, as this starts at a younger age.
‘[GPs should] be holistic, be aware of the resources that are available, and if possible, do a written melanoma management plan for the patient.’
Making the announcement on Sunday, Federal Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler described the medication’s first-time listing as ‘life-changing’.
‘With cheaper medicines we are supporting millions of Australians with chronic, ongoing conditions so they don’t have to choose between healthcare and paying the bills,’ he said.
The PBS addition comes as the Commonwealth continues to rollout a tranche of cheaper scripts initiatives.
Its lowering of the maximum cost of prescription medications last year reportedly saved patients more than $240 million in 2023.
Changes to the Safety Net Threshold have also reduced the yearly medicine costs for two million Australians by up to 25%.
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