Frustration among MPs is growing over a perceived lack of action on alleged price rigging of the 'specials' medicines market in the UK, potentially defrauding the NHS of hundreds of millions of pounds.

Shadow health minister Jamie Reed last week called for a Parliamentary inquiry into potentially fraudulent behaviour by pharmacists and pharma companies manufacturing 'specials', uncovered after an investigation by the Daily Telegraph earlier this year.

More than 20,000 special drugs, i.e. very low volume treatments prescribed when a clinical need cannot be met by a normal licensed medicine, fall outside the the scope of the NHS price list, thereby leaving them open to price manipulation.

The newspaper claimed back in June that specials manufacturers are issuing falsified invoices - up to double the actual price - to disguise that paid by pharmacy contractors, allowing them to claw back higher amounts from the NHS and chemists to "pocket the difference".

Addressing MPs during a wider debate on pharmacy, Reed stressed that "drug price fraud is happening in our most valued public service at a time of economic crisis, and it has occurred by design and not accident. Those responsible are not simply undertaking a grotesque financial deceit of patients and taxpayers, but are probably depriving the NHS of resources that could and should be used for patient care".

Drawing comparisons to the expenses scandal, which resulted in criminal sentencing and jail time for some MPs, Reed noted that it "pales into insignificance in monetary terms compared with the sheer scale of the embezzlement that is now being alleged in the drug price racket".

SFO investigation

He said Shadow Attorney-General Emily Thornberry had voiced her concerns on the matter to the Serious Fraud Office, and was told back in July that it is considering the allegations alongside fraud watchdog NHS Protect. 

But Reed claims that nothing has been heard since, and so called for an update on progress made by the SFO investigation, as well as alerting the Chairs of the Select Committee on Health and of the Public Accounts Committee so that they may undertake their own inquiries.

"Let me say to the pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies that are doing no wrong—clearly, that is the overwhelming majority—that I regret the distress that this issue will inevitably cause them, but it essential for all of us involved with the sector to leave no stone unturned in establishing the facts, if we are to be able to maintain the faith and trust of the public", he said.

Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health Daniel Poulter noted that, while "we can be sure that there is in place a robust pricing mechanism, which on the whole works very well and secures good value for the taxpayer and for local patients," there are "issues about certain items that pharmacists can prescribe, and we do need to look into them".