Rachel Smalley: Pharmac has misled the Health Minister over Today FM ban

Rachel Smalley: Pharmac has misled the Health Minister over Today FM ban

Opinion: I was fossicking around in the written Parliamentary questions this week, and I came across a question written by National MP Erica Stanford, to Dr Ayesha Verrall, the Health Minister.

Here’s the question:

4635 (2023). Erica Stanford to the Minister of Health (08 Mar 2023): "Did Pharmac contact MediaWorks in December stating that they would not speak to any MediaWorks journalists indefinitely, and if so, why was this decision made by Pharmac, and does this meet the Ministers expectations?"

Hon Dr Ayesha Verrall (Minister of Health) replied: I am advised that Pharmac paused media interviews with MediaWorks while Pharmac was in debate with MediaWorks over the accuracy of its reporting on a topic.

No, Minister. That is not what happened. Pharmac has misled you. That is not correct.

Here is what happened.

On Friday December 2nd, Pharmac CEO Sarah Fitt wrote to the CEO of MediaWorks after we said on-air that Pharmac was looking to fund Trikafta to treat cystic fibrosis.

In the email, Sarah Fitt said this.

“I cannot express how disappointed I am in your network. As a consequence, Pharmac will not be providing information, nor interviews, to TodayFM or any other MediaWorks station until we feel we can trust you again.”

Pharmac then requested that our story be taken down from our website, until the following Sunday at 6 pm, at which time Sarah Fitt herself would feature in a story on Newshub.

In the meantime, Pharmac got Draper Cormack on the job, one of the companies at the centre of Guyon Espiner’s brilliant series last week on lobbying. Draper Cormack, if they are worth their consultancy fee, would have cautioned Pharmac that their ban was ill-thought-through. There was no embargo. Government entities can’t ban a media organisation. They can’t withhold public health information from the media.  Pharmac is taxpayer-funded and accountable to you and me - the public.

By the Monday, and after Pharmac appeared heroic in a controversial TV news report, they shifted their language slightly and said they would be enforcing a one-week stand-down period on TodayFM.

“What for?” my boss asked in an email. And Pharmac's CEO Sarah Fitt could not articulate why. We were stuck with it. Pharmac wouldn't budge.

So a week went by. Remember, this ban was imposed because we broke a story. That was all. There was no ‘crime’ as such. 

“Hi Pharmac media team,

Given your media ban on MediaWorks expires at 5 pm today, I’d like to request an interview with CEO Sarah Fitt at 5.03 pm this evening.”

Lloyd then went on to outline what he wanted to talk about including the ban, and Pharmac’s reasoning for it.

Jane Wright, Pharmac’s communications advisor replied to Lloyd saying:

“Unfortunately, Sarah is unavailable this afternoon. We are checking her availability for Monday and will come back to you on that once we know, hopefully first thing Monday.”

Jane Wright then went on to say….

“We look forward to starting afresh with you and TodayFM and talking about funding decisions in the future.”

Afresh. Starting afresh after they had stood us down indefinitely, and then later revised it to a one-week stand-down period. 

Can I remind you…Minister Verrall said in her written answer to Erica Stanford… “I am advised that Pharmac paused media interviews with MediaWorks while Pharmac was in debate with MediaWorks over the accuracy of its reporting on a topic.”

There was no pause, Minister. Pharmac stood TodayFM down. They instructed our parent company MediaWorks, that as a consequence of breaking the story, Pharmac would not provide us with any information, nor interviews to TodayFM or any MediaWorks station.

Pharmac has dabbled with the truth here. Their advice to the Health Minister is misleading. 

I asked the Minister of Health for an interview. She said no. She said the issue was for Pharmac. 

I asked Pharmac for an interview. Pharmac said no. They have declined every interview request for three months. They won’t speak to Lloyd, myself or Tova. It's been a three-month stand-off. 

The Prime Minister, when we questioned him TWICE about Pharmac’s continual refusal to be interviewed, stated publicly that he expects Pharmac to be open and transparent with the media and ultimately the New Zealand public.

And Pharmac has flatly ignored Chris Hipkins' instruction. Not even the Prime Minister can force Pharmac's hand. 

Sitting at the top of all of this is Steve Maharey, the Chair, who won’t respond to any emails. He won’t reply. He ignores us. 

And under his governance, Pharmac's CEO has been flexible with the truth in her engagement with the Minister of Health. 

Sarah Fitt, you didn't pause engagement with us. You shut it down. 

And that, New Zealand, is our drug-procurement agency. And can I remind you, we are still bottom of the OECD for access to modern medicines. Pharmac answers to no one. Not the Minister. Not the Prime Minster. And most certainly not the public.