Little has been heard over how confidential talks between the Government and the pharmaceutical industry are progressing towards the goal of having a new, voluntary UK drug pricing system in place in 2014. In the eyes of the pharmaceutical companies this issue is the most important indicator of how serious the Government is about encouraging innovation and the science-based economy. The matter is even more important to patients because a lack of availability of medicines owing to funding constraints can literally mean the difference between life and death. Charities like Cancer Research UK, Bowel Cancer UK and the Multiple Sclerosis Society are anxiously awaiting information about how the new system will work. So are a number of MPs. At the same time the Government has to achieve value for money and a level of spending that is affordable and fair to the taxpayer.
The most important goal must be a system that works and achieves policy objectives without being excessively expensive, depriving patients of valuable medicines or being unnecessarily arbitrary. Providing that acceptable interim measures are put in place, it is more important to have a good system for the long term than to get it in place quickly. The Department of Health under Andrew Lansley originally proposed a system of so-called “value-based pricing” (“VBP”) for new drugs. The idea was to seek to quantify how much saving lives or increasing the quality of patients’ lives through the use of a drug was worth in financial terms, including benefits to society as a whole. I have argued from the beginning that such a procedure could not work without great controversy and serious, unintended consequences.
The most positive reason for the delay would be a recognition by Jeremy Hunt that, whether or not the new system is still called value-based pricing, any methodology involving valuing the benefits of individual drugs to patients and society is flawed. We need a system that gives every drug company a fair financial return, encourages R&D and pays for expensive new drugs by lowering the prices of older ones. If the Government is thinking along these lines, we should be patient.