The NHS may deny a ground-breaking hepatitis C drug to thousands of patients because it cannot afford it, according to internal papers.
Sofosbuvir, which has been shown to cure around 90 per cent of patients in combination with other drugs, has already been provisionally recommended by the drugs rationing body the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice).
However, an NHS England briefing note said that the £1bn estimated cost of providing the drug to 20,000 hepatitis C patients was “prohibitive”, the Health Service Journal (HSJ) reported.
The note suggests that the NHS could halve the cost of the drug by prioritising patients “according to severity of liver disease”.
Charles Gore, chief executive of the Hepatitis C Trust, questioned whether the drug was being singled out because the disease predominately affects disadvantaged groups.
“I doubt if this same affordability question would be there in the face of a cost-effective treatment for cancer,” he said.
Another leading clinician said that the NHS’ proposed course of action set “a dangerous precedent that the NHS is only going to treat people with severe diseases”.
The NHS in England is under severe financial pressure, with many experts predicting it to go into deficit either this year or next.
Decisions over which drugs the NHS can afford to use are made by Nice. A spokesperson for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said it would be “alarming” if a medicine approved by Nice “might then be subject to further hurdles that could impede patient access”.
An NHS England spokesperson said 500 patients had already benefitted from early access to Sofosbuvir, and emphasised that Nice had not yet issued final guidance.