Drugs - at what price?

Cancer Research recently reported the welcome news that three quarters of drugs from the Cancer Drugs Fund are now available on the NHS. Great - we’re thrilled for all the patients that will now get access to vital medicines! But the question remains - at what price?

The most recently approved drug is Bayer’s Nexavar, a much needed liver cancer drug which has been rejected by NICE several times because it wasn’t deemed cost effective. At a suggested list price of nearly £47,000 per year perhaps that’s not surprising. The list price is the most the NHS will pay, although for most drugs it negotiates a discount. But this final price is a tightly guarded secret - it may be taxpayer’s money, but currently we don’t have the right to know what we’re actually forking out for Nexavar or any other medicine. 

With no transparency on the final price our NHS is paying for drugs, there’s little way we can see if we’re getting value for money. And although we don’t know the exact final price, we do know that many of these drugs are hideously expensive. The Hep C drug Sofosbuvir for example is currently rationed on the NHS as the price is so high (around £35,000 for a 12 week course), and other drugs remain unavailable altogether because of pricing issues. We hear that the price the NHS pays is much lower, but that’s not something we are officially told. 

So who’s benefitting from this secrecy? 

The pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable in the world, and they spend a huge amount of money to keep it that way. They claim keeping these prices secret means the NHS gets a better deal. But in reality the evidence and common sense suggests that knowing how much everyone else is paying allows you to make sure you strike a good deal.

Clare had to wait three years to access the Hep C treatment she needed on the NHS. The high cost of Sofosbuvir means it is currently rationed by NHS England. 

Clare had to wait three years to access the Hep C treatment she needed on the NHS. The high cost of Sofosbuvir means it is currently rationed by NHS England. 

We believe we’re paying well above the odds for the drugs we buy - generic Sofosbuvir (quality assured copies of the medicine) for example is made and sold at a profit in other countries for less than £300. So all that taxpayer money is keeping the pharma giants at the top of the food chain. 

And it may be about to get worse. The Department for Health’s new chief commercial officer Steve Oldfield is an ex-pharmaceutical company boss who’s been a leading advocate in pressuring the government to accept higher drug prices. Yes you read that correctly, a man who has lobbied for the NHS to pay a higher price for medicines will soon be in charge of what the NHS pays for medicines. No prizes for guessing the implications on drug prices. 

The issue of transparency has never been as important as it is today. With a cash strapped NHS, and a pharmaceutical industry focused on maximising its profit, the public should have the right to see what’s going on behind the scenes. So while we welcome the news that so many CDF drugs are now available on the NHS, this needs to be matched with transparency over pricing. We need to get a handle on drug prices if we’re to safeguard the future of our health service.

Please join us to challenge the lack of transparency over drug company costs and bring the prices down for everyone: https://justtreatment.org/join

Elizabeth Baines