Drug giants threaten NHS for trying to cut millions from their drug bill

Twelve NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in the North of England have been threatened with legal action by drug companies Bayer and Novartis. Why? Because they've recommended using another companies' drug for blindness, potentially saving the NHS up to £539 million a year. These CCGs, which decide how NHS money is spent in their area, made the decision based on overwhelming evidence that the cheaper drug is just as effective as two more expensive drugs, despite the cheaper drug not being licensed for use in this condition.

Off-label use is where a medicine is used to treat a patient in a different way to how it has been licensed. This does not mean that it is unsafe and a doctor may prescribe an off-label medicine if they think it is the best option for you and evidence suggests it will effectively treat your condition.

The decision would encourage doctors to prescribe anti-cancer drug Avastin, made by Roche, over Novartis’ drug Lucentis and Bayer’s Eylea as treatment for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in the elderly. NHS funded research has shown that the drugs all work effectively, with similar side effects, however Avastin is significantly cheaper than the other two, at £12.13 per injection as opposed to £742 for Lucentis and £816 for Eylea.

Diarmaid McDonald from Just Treatment said,

“These drug companies are trying to bully the NHS for taking completely legal steps to avoid these unjustifiably high prices. Lucentis is one of Novartis’ most lucrative drugs, with sales of over £1.5 billion a year and they are worried this move will mean they make less money. The companies don’t care about patients or our NHS, they care about their profits.”

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The savings made by the switch would give the 12 CCGs involved enough extra money to pay for 270 nurses or 266 heart operations each year for the next five years. Dr David Hambleton, chief officer of the South Tyneside CCG insists that this decision is “an absolute no-brainer” and is much better than rationing other services in order to pay for the more expensive options. “Drug companies should not dictate which drugs are available to NHS patients,” he added.

Novartis and Bayer claim that the move breaches a patient’s legal right to an approved drug, but the NHS is ensuring that patients are fully informed of their right to choose between the different treatment options. We hope the NHS doesn’t back down.

Kamil McClelland