A test case legal battle over NHS funding of sight-saving treatment for a degenerative eye disease has been settled in favour of three Warwickshire patients following a High Court judge's intervention.
Novartis, the manufacturers of a new drug used to treat the condition, wrote to the court last week in response to pressure from Mr Justice Forbes and made it clear that treatment for the Warwickshire patients at the centre of the case was "less than a hair's breadth away".
Today, the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) said Warwickshire Primary Care Trust and Novartis had agreed a deal which meant that three test case claimants and around 100 others in the region would now get NHS-funded treatment for wet age-related macular degeneration (wet AMD).
The RNIB said Warwickshire PCT had agreed to change its restrictive funding policy on the sight-saving drug Lucentis.
"Following the deal, RNIB is urging other PCTs across the country with restrictive funding policies to come to similar arrangements so that everyone who needs treatment for wet AMD can get it," the Institute said.
The three claimants in the case, Jean Middleton, 78, from Kingsbury, Raymond Liggins, 76, from Nuneaton, and Patricia Meadows, 65, from Stratford-upon-Avon, have wet AMD which can lead to blindness in as little as three months if left untreated.
The RNIB, which had backed the patients' case against Warwickshire PCT, said Mr Liggins cared for his stroke-victim wife Olive and feared that without treatment he would not be able to look after her.
On hearing of the settlement, he said: "I'm over the moon - I can't stop smiling. This result means all the world to me and Olive.
"It's been one of the most stressful times that we have had to go through and we're so relieved it's over. We can now start making plans for our future. It's an absolutely fantastic result and wonderful for everyone who didn't think they had a chance of getting treatment."
The RNIB said that, encouraged by Mr Justice Forbes on the third day of the High Court hearing in London to find a solution, Novartis and the PCT agreed to implement the latest draft guidance on sight-saving drugs from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice).
Nice draft guidance stipulates that most patients with wet AMD should get treatment with Lucentis and that Novartis will pay for drug costs beyond 14 treatments.
The drug is available in some parts of the country, but because of its cost PCTs have a discretion on funding. The patients argued in court that Warwickshire healthcare chiefs acted "unlawfully and irrationally" in refusing to pay for the drug except in "exceptional" cases - which, they said, did not include the three claimants.
The RNIB's head of campaigns, Steve Winyard, said: "We are absolutely delighted. This is a huge success, not only for Jean, Ray and Patricia, but also for patients across Warwickshire who are currently being denied effective sight saving treatments for wet AMD on the grounds of cost.
"It's incredibly disappointing that it took High Court action before Warwickshire PCT changed their heartless policy. The battle has undoubtedly put unnecessary strain on the three people at the heart of this case and wasted public money.
"For other PCTs currently denying sight saving treatment to patients in their care, our message is clear: change your policy now. The treatments are available and the financial barriers are down, so end this national scandal by giving patients in your care the treatment they need to save their sight."
The deal struck by Novartis and the PCT is on an interim basis pending final guidance from Nice on the cost-effectiveness of Lucentis.
The Department of Health has made it clear to PCTs that funding for treatment should not be withheld simply because guidance from Nice is not available.
Test case claimant Jean Middleton, a former government officer for Birmingham City Council and special needs teacher, said: "I can't express how relieved and happy I am.
"I've been terrified of going blind and it's been a dreadful strain for me and my family to live with. At last I can look forward to the future and feel positive about it.
"I'm so pleased for everyone else in Warwickshire in a similar situation - now we won't have to lose our sight."
Mr Justice Forbes, after hearing that some people might lose their sight before Nice made a final decision, had encouraged the PCT and the drug manufacturer to work together to find a solution.
He expressed his anxiety over the situation and called on Novartis to see if it could help.
Novartis contacted the court and said that, following consultations with the Department of Health, it might be ready to make treatment available in Warwickshire under a reimbursement scheme before publication of Nice's final guidance.