The US government has slammed a UK newspaper report published last week, claiming that it wrongly suggested that the White House is trying to tell the UK government how to run the national health care system.

In a story published November 14, headlined “Open up NHS to our drug firms, White House demands,” The Guardian newspaper had reported that US Deputy Health Secretary Alex Azar, in London for talks with UK Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, had stated that attempts to curb soaring national drug bills through the use of rationing mechanisms such as the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence would stifle innovation, while allowing all new drugs to be used on the National Health Service would drive the bill down, as it would result in companies “fighting it out” on price.

Mr Azar had also backed the use of direct-to-consumer advertising of medicines and suggested that UK government might consider offering private health insurance packages, along the lines of those provided through Medicare, the US government-run health care program for the elderly and less well-off.

However, Mr Azar’s spokesman has told Pharma Times that, while he was in London, the Deputy Health Secretary had discussed the US experience over the past year with Medicare Part D program, which, he said, “encourages competition in the marketplace to lower the costs of drugs for older Americans, and had used that as an example to speak generically about the interactions and roles of government and industry to drive down prices.”

But, he added, Mr Azar had “never once recommended or directed that the UK take specific steps through its NICE to lower prices. The Guardian, on its own, linked those two lines of conversation to NICE and wrote that Mr Azar - and even more incorrectly, the White House - was in the UK to tell them how to run their health care system.”

The Guardian had “significantly mischaracterised” Mr Azar’s comments, said the spokesman, who pointed out that the purpose of the Deputy Secretary’s visit had been to share experiences from the USA related to the roles of government and industry in stimulating investment and innovation in pharmaceutical research and in making affordable drugs available to the public.

“Mr Azar made it very clear numerous times throughout the [Guardian] interview that he was in the UK to share information and experiences, but also to learn from the UK from their health care experiences, as we can never be satisfied that we know all the answers,” he stated.

The newspaper report had said the US government was “positioning itself behind the giant pharmaceutical firms, predominantly based in America, which have been piling pressure on” NICE, the body which publishes clinical and cost-effectiveness guidance on which treatments should be made available on the NHS in England and Wales.

In September, the Guardian had obtained documents under Freedom of Information legislation which showed that, in the eight months to May this year, senior executives from 10 pharmaceutical manufacturers had met with UK government ministers to express their concerns over NICE’s procedures, even though ministers emphasise that they cannot influence the Institute’s decisions.

Reacting to last week’s Guardian story, the UK Department of Health adopted a similar tone to that of Mr Azar’s office. “The US has a health system that suits its needs, and while that may not transport itself to the UK, it is important to hear about other systems to see if we can learn from them,” said a spokesman.

He also emphasized the independence of NICE, and added: “Ministers are committed to ensuring that it can continue to carry out its important work free from political interference."

However, late last week, the most recent of many clashes between individual pharmaceutical manufacturers and NICE took a new turn, when Eisai and Pfizer, makers of the Alzheimer’s disease treatment Aricept (donepezil), began proceedings to begin the first-ever court challenge to the process by which a NICE decision has been reached.

Moreover, last Friday (November 17), GlaxoSmithKline chief executive Jean-Pierre Garnier called on NICE to improve its processes, and suggested that the UK should adopt the revolutionary new method of setting prices for new drugs which GSK has already agreed with two other European governments. This scheme, under which the prices set at launch for some of the company’s new products could be increased, or lowered, as further information on their value becomes available through post-marketing studies, has received a cautious welcome from industry groups.

Discussing his proposal after a meeting with Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, Dr Garnier was quoted by The Times as stating that NICE was “not a perfect system.”