Revealed: Big Pharma's hidden links to NHS policy, with senior MPs saying medical industry uses ‘wealth to influence government’

Specialised Healthcare Alliance is entirely funded by ‘commercial’ members

NHS bosses allowed a lobbying company working for some of the world’s biggest drugs and medical equipment firms to write a draft report which could help shape future health policy. NHS England commissioned a group called the Specialised Healthcare Alliance (SHCA) to consult with patients’ groups, charities and health organisations and produce a report feeding into its future five-year strategy for commissioning £12bn of services.

But the SHCA has confirmed to The Independent that it is entirely funded by commercial “members”. Its director, John Murray, is also a lobbyist whose company lists some of the world’s biggest drug and medical device firms as clients.

Mr Murray put his name on a foreword to the NHS England document along with James Palmer, the clinical director of specialised services at NHS England, with whom he admits he has had “many meetings [on] a wide range of organisations and interests”.

The findings raise significant questions about links between the lobbying industry and NHS England – a quango set up to run the NHS under the Government’s health reforms.

Unlike other government departments NHS England does not register its meetings with lobbyists. It also does not routinely publicly disclose all potential conflicts of interest of those who do work for it. While the report itself makes no specific spending recommendations, it does suggest that NHS England should set out a “clear commitment” to “disinvest in interventions that have lower impact for patients” in favour of “new services or innovations”.

Big Pharma lobbyists exploit patients and doctors  

This could ultimately provide financial benefits to an industry keen to sell the latest equipment and treatments to the NHS, even if some of the benefits might be marginal.

Tonight NHS England denied the report – which it said had undergone “due scrutiny” by officials before being published – represented a conflict of interest. It said that the document was a “scoping exercise”, which would not influence its final recommendations which are due to be released next year.

Mr Palmer said NHS England was aware of Mr Murray’s other role as a lobbyist and was happy with his involvement. He added: “There are no opportunities for lobbying in the process of forming clinical policy.”

Mr Murray insisted there was no link between his lobbying business and the Specialised Healthcare Alliance – except that it provided secretariat services. He told The Independent that the SHCA “never takes a position on particular products or treatments in any of its activities”.

But senior MPs suggested it showed the medical industry was able to use its “wealth to influence government policy at will”. One has called for a parliamentary debate.

“This calls into question the integrity and objectivity of NHS England’s handling of 143 specialised services for millions of people,” said Liberal Democrat Tessa Munt.

Sarah Wollaston, a former GP and member of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, said: “NHS England is increasingly commissioning vast sums of public money and we need to know who is getting invited to sit on what panels and what potential conflicts of interest they might have.” Tamasin Cave, of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency, said: “This proves what’s long been understood, which is that the pharmaceuticals industry is a formidable lobbyist with unrivalled access to policy-makers and significant influence.”

The SHCA describes itself as a group representing more than 90 patient groups and charities such as Bowel Cancer UK, the British Liver Trust and Epilepsy Action. But all its costs are paid for by 13 drug companies, all of whom pay £12,000 a year.

Secretariat services to SHCA are provided by a lobbying company called JMC Partners, whose senior partner is also Mr Murray.

JMC Partners’ clients include blue-chip drugs firms such as Novatis, Astro Zenica, Sanofi and Pfizer. It also represents a number of medical device manufacturers and biotech companies who sell their products to the NHS, including Roche Diagnostics, Cyberonics and Bausch & Lomb.

The company’s website makes bold claims about how it has been able to influence policy. In one case study it says it represented a medical device manufacturer who was worried about a planned cut in the amount the NHS paid for a treatment with which it was involved. JMC boasted that it organised a lobbying campaign targeting MPs and ministers as well as mobilising doctors to support its cause. It concludes: “The market for the technology was saved.”

Mr Murray told The Independent that he did not believe the report represented a conflict of interest.

“JMC’s clients are declared transparently in the APPC Register,” he said. “The SHCA is purely concerned with the overarching issues related to specialised commissioning.  

“The stakeholder report is the sole property of NHS England. The work was provided to NHS England for its consideration. We are proud of our record providing high-quality information to support government and others in developing better policy.”

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