Drugmakers in the UK are preparing to mount a legal challenge to call a halt to plans by the Department of Health to offer incentives to doctors who switch to using generic versions of expensive brand medicines.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has begun a judicial review against the DoH, claiming that schemes being advocated for the National Health Service which involve paying GPs more to prescribe cheaper drugs could contravene European law. The association issued a statement saying that “for some time the ABPI has had serious concerns about a number of initiatives at primary care organisation level, especially those that provide incentives for switching large numbers of patients to alternative treatments with the sole aim of reducing costs and with inadequate patient safeguards”.

In particular, the ABPI is concerned that doctors are being encouraged to write prescriptions for generic cholesterol-lowerers such as simvastatin or pravastatin, rather than Pfizer’s Lipitor (atorvastatin) or AstraZeneca’s Crestor (rosuvastatin) simply on the grounds of price and regardless of the patient’s wishes. It argues that patients should have to give explicit consent for any switching rather than leaving the onus on them to object.

However the DoH says that it will “rigorously defend” the legal challenge and notes that the NHS could potentially save £84 million if it switched to low-cost generic statins. The department also notes that generic drugs are safe, are of good quality and are just as effective as branded drugs and the feeling is that the ABPI’s threatened legal moves are more to do with the commercial side of the business rather a matter of public health.

A DoH spokesperson told Reuters: “We are talking here about achieving best value for money for the taxpayer and are backed by authoritative guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. Cost-effective prescribing releases resources for more patients to receive treatment”.