Save lives - and money: Why are ministers refusing to make these drugs available?


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The Independent Online

The rising cost of drugs is one of the greatest financial burdens upon the NHS, already creaking under the pressure of a growing, ageing and increasingly overweight population.

Historically high prices attached to new medicines, particularly those which can give cancer patients a longer and less painful life, have already led the Government to bypass the drugs watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), which rejects many such treatments on grounds of cost-effectiveness, and set up the Cancer Drugs Fund at the cost of £200m a year.

It is therefore surprising to learn that the same Government is resisting calls to make a different set of drugs, which are actually much cheaper and in some cases highly effective, more accessible to patients who need them.

A Bill, which calls on the Government to seek new licences for old drugs that are shown to have benefits above and beyond their original intended purpose, is being put before the House of Commons tomorrow. These are drugs that have lost their patent. The pharmaceutical companies that make them therefore have no financial incentive to seek a licence for their new intended purpose.

Charities representing people living with breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, thousands of whom stand to benefit, support the idea that the Government should step in where the pharmaceutical industry – motivated almost solely by profit and not patient care – refuses. Jonathan Evans, the Conservative MP who introduced the Bill, has done so in his final year in office, before standing down at the next election, in the hope it will “save many lives and transform countless others”. It will, and at minimal cost.

Doctors and patients back it, as does an impressive coalition of medical research charities. The fact that the Government does not is, as the charity Breast Cancer Campaign says, “incomprehensible”.