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Member spotlight: the Bristol activist battling Big Pharma

The Just Treatment campaign challenges the pharmaceutical companies charging the NHS rip-off prices for vital drugs.

Ideas and Action

The Just Treatment campaign challenges the pharmaceutical companies charging the NHS rip-off prices for vital drugs.

Photo credit: Lynda Laird

The NHS refuses to fund some drugs for patients with life-limiting and chronic conditions – because pharmaceutical companies make them prohibitively expensive.

Now a new campaign group, Just Treatment, is targeting Big Pharma and the government to tackle the drugs swindle that costs the NHS millions and prevents patients from receiving life-enhancing medicine.

“These very high drug prices are a risk to our NHS at a time when its under an unprecedented level of pressure – we shouldn’t just be handing more and more money to some of the most profitable companies in the world”

Cable member and Easton resident Diarmaid McDonald is lead organiser and co-founded the group. He works with a national network of patient leaders and activists to highlight the rip-off prices and campaign for reforms to the drug market that are fairer for both patients and the taxpayer.

In November last year, the group secured its first victory. Led by breast cancer patient Emma Robertson, Just Treatment challenged pharma giant Pfizer to drop the price of a drug, palbociclib. They were charging an estimated £140 per pill, but campaigners insisted it could be produced profitably for just £1. After an “overwhelming response” to the campaign and tens of thousands of signatures on a petition, Pfizer announced they’d drop the price. Palbociclib – called a ‘breakthrough’ treatment – is now available on the NHS. But there’s more to do.

“I think there’s this idea that the reason drug prices are high is that either they cost a lot to manufacture or they’re trying to cover the costs of developing drugs and the R&D [research and development],” explains McDonald. “But actually the main driver of high drugs prices is the fact that the drug manufacturers have got a monopoly on the patent – and then they’re able to charge whatever price they can get away with.”

The problem is the way that the development of new drugs by private companies is incentivised: “[It] relies on giving companies a monopoly… that prevents competition on that medicine, no one else can produce it. That leads to high prices all around the world, including in the UK.”

The result, says McDonald, is that there’s been a price inflation over the last decade which has “completely outpaced the economy and completely outpaced the health outcomes that these medicines generate”.

Diarmaid McDonald and Emma Robertson celebrate a campaign win.Diarmaid McDonald and Emma Robertson celebrate a campaign win.

“These very high drug prices are a risk to our NHS at a time when its under an unprecedented level of pressure – we shouldn’t just be handing more and more money into the pockets of some of the most profitable companies in the world,” says McDonald. He points out that huge amounts of money could be redirected to supply more nurses, outreach programmes or treatment for greater numbers of people.

The problems are compounded by a lack of transparency over the price the NHS ends up paying. Although drugs have a ‘list price’, the amount is negotiated by the NHS, and the amount the NHS pays the companies is different and kept secret.

“When [drug companies] are providing an essential public service we should be able to hold them to account,” says McDonald. “The first step to being able to do that is transparency. Both with the prices and the amounts they are spending on development.”

The high prices aren’t the only way pharmaceutical companies benefit from taxpayers. “We, the taxpayers, are supporting the development of these new drugs, so we’re paying for the early research but then when the drugs are finally brought back to the market, then we’re paying for them again,” explains McDonald.

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Just Treatment differs from other patient groups advocating access to treatments by looking at the root causes of the problems. Other patient groups and charities might be angry at NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) for not making an expensive drug available, while the drug company might blame the government for not approving the medicine. “And none of them are asking questions about whether or not that drug is justified in having that high price,” says McDonald.

The group is also campaigning on things that the government could do, such as having a ‘crown use’ licence, which would allow the NHS to buy cheaper, generic versions of drugs. It’s a course of action that was common in the 1960s and 1970s, but since the Patents Act 1977, the government is liable to provide adequate compensation to companies – which could run to billions – if it took such a step. However, governments in India and Italy have taken on the Big Pharma fight and won.

McDonald says the campaign rejects the “crappy” choice “between paying an astronomically high price – which we know will damage the NHS – and take funding away from other vital services, or having patients die because they don’t have access.

“We shouldn’t be left choosing between A or B. There is a third option, which challenges the profiteering of the drug companies. And at the moment the government is choosing not to use it.”

If you’re affected by these issues or find out more about Just Treatment

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