GlaxoSmithKline chief executive Sir Andrew Witty has said that the government is "systematically" delaying the introduction and reimbursement of innovative new cancer drugs, in order to save money.
"The issue here is, of course, if you don't buy the new drug it is going to save you money in the drug bill," said Sir Andrew, speaking to the BBC. "But the drug bill is only 8%-10% of the total healthcare bill and what is being lost in this stampede for cost cuts is any kind of strategic thoughtfulness," he added.
The problem is Europe-wide, he acknowledged. 'We are seeing a variety of the more innovative, and yes more expensive medicines being delayed in a whole series of different diseases across Europe," said Sir Andrew. "Ultimately it's one of those situations where the drift will be imperceptibly happening, but when you look back in five or 10 years, a huge gap will have opened up."
Professor Jonathan Waxman of Imperial College London has also said that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has "over-regulated and proscribed drugs that offer real advances to people with cancer."
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Prof Waxman said that two new drugs for prostate cancer had become available over the last year and a half which offer real benefits to patients. However, he added: "I would argue that they have been disallowed - banned - by NICE on the basis of an assessment which is not a true financial cost of the worth of the drugs."
"We are going to have a situation in the UK where drugs are not available for our patients. It is a disaster," warned Prof Waxman, who is founder of the Prostate Cancer Charity.
Responding to Sir Andrew and Prof Waxman's claims, the Department of Health said the government has increased spending on health, including new drugs, and it has not changed any assessment processes relating to cancer drugs.
"Furthermore, drug companies need to look hard at the high costs they are asking of the health service for their latest treatments," a Department spokesman added.
- Last week, the Department's latest Report to Parliament on the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS) showed that ex-manufacturer drug prices in the UK in 2010 (based on exchange rates for the fourth quarter of the year) were significantly lower than in the US and also lower than in Australia and in 10 European comparator countries.
However, it adds that, if a longer-term five-year average exchange rate is used, a more mixed picture emerges. “UK prices are significantly lower than those in the USA; lower than those in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland and Sweden; and higher than those in Finland, Spain and France. This demonstrates the influence that exchange rates have on the estimates of price relativities," says the Department.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) said it welcomed the report's acknowledgement that UK levels of generic prescribing are among the highest in Europe. This, combined with having some of the lowest prices, means that the "the NHS should be able to afford more innovative new medicines, based on the savings made on generic medicine," it says.
"Past analysis has shown that between 2009 and 2014, the NHS will save over £3 billion as patents expire and many companies lose their exclusive rights to market specific branded medicines," says the ABPI.
However, ABPI chief executive Stephen Whitehead added that, despite the UK's particularly low prices, "patients are still struggling to access medicines as easily or as quickly as our European counterparts. In fact, ABPI analysis shows that the use of new cancer medicines in the UK is 33% lower than in the rest of Europe."
"Patient access schemes have helped to improve this situation, but further progress is needed in this area," said Mr Whitehead.