An official investigation to determine whether pharmaceutical companies are colluding with pharmacists to rig the market for 'specials' prescription drugs in the UK, and are thereby artificially inflating the amount the NHS is shelling out for them, could soon be underway.

The crime detection arm of the health service NHS Protect has confirmed that it is looking into findings of an undercover operation by the Daily Telegraph that 'specials' manufacturers are issuing falsified invoices to disguise the actual prices paid by pharmacy contractors for these medicines.

Company representatives were found to be issuing invoices to chemists at up to double the actual price of the drug, allowing companies to claw back higher amounts from the NHS and chemists to "pocket the difference", the newspaper has claimed.

More than 20,000 'special' drugs - very low volume treatments prescribed when a clinical need cannot be met by a normal licensed medicine - do not fall within the remit of the NHS price list, rendering them vulnerable to price manipulation.

"Hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers money are feared to have been wasted in recent years due to the practice," according to the Daily Telegraph.

But Sue Sharpe, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, stressed that the guidance for pharmacy contractors dispensing 'special' medicines is "crystal clear" in that the true net sum paid - including all discounts - must be disclosed when claiming payment for them from the NHS.

Allegations 'condemned'

"Therefore we do not support any practices that aim to disguise the true prices paid by pharmacy contractors for specials and earlier this year we strongly advised pharmacists not to deal with companies that offer to invoice in this inappropriate way", she stressed.

Stephen Whitehead, Chief Executive of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said if the allegations made by the Daily Telegraph's investigation are found to be true, they are "completely unacceptable and we condemn them in the strongest terms". 

He also noted that none of the companies referred to investigation are members of the ABPI.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Industry has also condemned "in the strongest possible terms" any attempt to defraud the NHS through illegal or corrupt practices, and called for a "swift and thorough investigation".

A spokesperson for NHS Protect told PharmaTimes UK News that the group "is considering carefully the allegations made and, if we find grounds to suspect fraud, we will thoroughly investigate", though he declined to comment any further at this time.