Independent Senator John Crown has told the Seanad there is a crisis in the availability of cancer treatment drug Ipilimumab, which is used to treat melanoma.

He claimed the drug was being denied for use in cancer patients by the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, which advises the Health Service Executive.

Senator Crown said it was a very expensive drug, which was not effective for many people.

However, it did allow a small number of patients to "win the big lotto". They seemed to get cured after treatment with it, he said.

The senator added that the annual investment of €4m to provide the drug for patients who have melanoma was worth it.

He said he had a 21-year-old woman and a 32-year-old mother both looking to get the drug. He said private insurers were following the lead of the HSE and not covering the cost of the drug.

Senator Crown questioned why the minister was spending money on communications consultants to write speeches, and having corporate affairs offices and spending €10m per year on HIQA.

He said he could not understand why drugs such as Ipilimumab could not be afforded, if those costs are being paid out.

He said the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics was a small office making very powerful decisions that effectively make these drugs unavailable across the entire health service.

Prof Crown asked the leader of the Seanad to ask Health Minister James Reilly to clarify the status of decision-making process for cancer drugs. He said he appreciated the health service did not exist in an economic vacuum.

He said he had heard of another drug, to treat breast cancer, which is being denied.

He said many of the treatments that are routine now would never have been passed if the same rules for accessing drugs were used then as are being used now.