Pharmac proposing to phase out food thickeners

Media release Medicines

Today Te Pātaka Whaioranga – Pharmac is beginning a consultation to better understand how phasing out the funding of food thickeners in the community would affect people who use them.

Pharmac’s chief medical officer Dr David Hughes says, “Food thickeners are currently funded in the community specifically for people who have motor neurone disease with a swallowing disorder, and are currently used by around 100 New Zealanders. 

“The proposal that is being consulted on would mean that no new patients would be able to start receiving funded food thickeners in the community from 1 June 2023 and that food thickeners would no longer be funded for use in the community for any patients from 1 October 2024. However, this proposal would not affect people receiving funded food thickeners in public hospitals.

“We have received advice from our clinical advisors multiple times - and over a number of years - about funding food thickeners in the community. Each time, they have indicated that there is a lack of evidence that food thickeners actually address the health needs of people with a swallowing disorder. However, we do acknowledge this group of people currently have high unmet health needs,” says Dr Hughes.

In 2013, the Special Foods Advisory Committee recommended [PDF, 125 KB] that food thickeners should not be funded for use in patients with a swallowing disorder in the community, so it should be delisted except for in-hospital use. 

In January 2021 Pharmac issued a request for information from stakeholders, including healthcare professionals, those people taking both funded and non-funded food thickeners, their whānau and their carers to help guide our thinking about developing an approach to the funding of food thickeners. Their responses were considered by our Pharmacology and Therapeutics Advisory Committee (PTAC) in May 2021. PTAC noted [PDF, 747 KB]:

  • the evidence of benefit from treatment with food thickeners was insufficient
  • there are possible risks of harm from using food thickeners
  • it is difficult to define a population group that would benefit more from using food thickeners than others

“We haven't acted on this change until now as our work primarily focuses on funding medicines, and not often delisting. Our experts have told us that we should be considering making this change, and this consultation process is a crucial part of that. We acknowledge that this is a complicated issue and could have significant impact on people, which is why we have taken the time and sought all relevant perspectives before proposing delisting,” says Dr Hughes.

Today’s consultation is available on the Pharmac website for anyone wanting to have their say.

“Consultation is a very important step in our process,” says Dr Hughes. “We are asking New Zealanders what they think about the proposal. We will work with the suppliers and health sector to consider if changes to our planned approach would be appropriate, after considering the feedback received.” 

“We really empathise with people who could feel unsettled by this proposal – people who use food thickeners, their carers, whānau, and wider communities. We want to emphasise that we have not made a decision to stop funding food thickeners in the community, and that any changes we make in the future would carefully consider all the consultation feedback we receive.”

Consultation feedback is due by 4:00pm Friday 31 May 2023. 

Learn more:

A food thickener is a product that is added to food or liquid to modify it to help people who have difficulty swallowing their food or liquid. The clinical term for having difficulty swallowing is dysphagia. 

Pharmac currently funds two different food thickeners for people who have motor neurone disease with a swallowing disorder: Nutilis powder and Karicare Aptamil Feed Thickener.