GPs back use of generic drugs

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The Independent Online
FAMILY DOCTORS' leaders have backed moves that could cut pounds 50m a year off the NHS drug bill - just as Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, has kicked the idea into touch under pressure from the drugs industry.

In a reversal of a 10-year-old policy, GP leaders have voted by 65 to 2 to allow pharmacists to substitute cheaper, non- brand name, generic drugs in place of prescribed branded products - unless the GP states that must not be done on the prescription. Such generic substitution could save the NHS pounds 50m a year according to the NHS spending watchdog, the Audit Commission, which urged the move on ministers last month.

Dr Brian Mawhinney, the Minister for Health, is known to be keen to make the saving. He told the Commons Select Committee on Health last month that his officials were about to open talks with the British Medical Association to see if the details of a scheme could be agreed. The BMA's family doctors' committee has now supported the idea, reversing a 10-year stance that pharmacists should need specific approval from GPs each time before they substituted a generic for a brand name drug.

Mrs Bottomley, however, last week told a pharmaceutical conference that the Government had considered generic substitution for a decade and 'in all that time we have never been convinced that it was the right way to tackle the problem'. Ministers remained to be convinced, she said.

Dr Mawhinney is understood still to back the idea, the split between the health ministers developing after the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry reacted with fury to Dr Mawhinney's public support for the idea. Having already agreed to price cuts and a price freeze, the industry fired off letters to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, and to Mrs Bottomley, complaining of breach of faith and warning that drug companies would quit Britain if generic substitution went ahead.

They also made their views known at a meeting with Mrs Bottomley who plainly judged it politic to back off the idea, despite the soaring cost of the NHS drugs' bill - up 12 per cent last year.

The BMA said GP leaders' had changed their view because there was now much less concern than a decade ago about the quality of generic drugs.