GPs targeted in drive to curb costly drugs

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FAMILY DOCTORS who dispense expensive brand-name drugs are to be targeted in a drive that could save the NHS pounds 60m a year.

Ministers are considering radical reforms to the way GPs dispense the medicines as part of a wider review to cut profiteering by pharmaceutical companies. The Department of Health review follows research showing health authorities could wipe out their drug budget deficits if more generic medicines were prescribed instead of branded drugs. Generic drugs are often just as effective as brand names but GPs are bombarded with marketing and gifts from big pharmaceutical companies.

The overhaul, part of a wider drive to cut billions from the drugs budget, will target GPs who can supplement their income by up to pounds 60,000 by dispensing drugs themselves instead of using a pharmacy. They receive a payment of 10.5 per cent of the cost of the drugs they prescribe.

Critics say the doctors, who often work in rural areas, bank the income or spend it employing locums to cut their workload and "spend more time on the golf course". On average, more than 74 per cent of drugs prescribed by dispensing GPs are branded..

The Government has already set a target of 72 per cent of all drugs to be dispensed as generic by 2002 but ministers are concerned that urgent action is needed to reach the figure. Had generic drugs been prescribed in the NHS last year in place of branded versions, pounds 66m would have been saved, all but wiping out the pounds 69m drugs overspend.

The Audit Commission has estimated that if GPs were forced to prescribe just 20 of the most common drugs generically, the NHS could save pounds 50m a year.

The review will also aim to tackle the practice of drug companies selling their products as loss leaders to hospitals while simultaneously selling them at high prices to GPs and pharmacies.

Once a hospital consultant has put a patient on the drug, GPs are pressed to keep them on the same medication, allowing pharmaceutical firms to make huge profits. The difference in price between a hospital and community surgery can be dramatic. One month's prescription of the diuretic Frumil can cost 20p per patient in hospital compared to pounds 6.20 when prescribed by a GP.

Peter Bradley, Labour MP for The Wrekin, will raise the "scandal" of branded drugs in an adjournment debate in the House of Commons today. "These two scams, the dispensing GPs' nice little earner and the hospital- led prescribing, are costing the NHS pounds 66m a year," he said last night.

"Every penny wasted on branded drugs is a penny which should be spent on health care. The money saved would pay for 4,000 nurses' salaries or allow us to abolish dental charges in England."