NHS drugs: Prioritise patients over exports, says MP Huw Irranca-Davies

  • 24 June 2012
  • From the section Wales

Patients struggle to obtain drugs for common life-threatening conditions in 80% of NHS trusts, an MP has claimed.

Huw Irranca-Davies, Labour MP for Ogmore, called for action over medicine shortages caused by more lucrative exports to other EU countries.

The Department of Health said manufacturers had a quota system which should be flexible enough to cope.

But the MP said quotas had failed, and called on the UK government to give NHS patients priority over exports.

Mr Irranca-Davies submitted a freedom of information request after a woman in his constituency said she was told the breast cancer drug she had on prescription was out of stock.

He said the chemist concerned had contacted other chemists, the distributor and even the manufacturer without success.

More than 60 NHS trusts in England and Wales responded to his inquiry, with four out of five reporting delays in obtaining stocks.

Drugs to treat cancer and Alzheimer's disease were among the commonly-prescribed medicines running short, according to Mr Irranca-Davies.

In May, MPs in the All-Party Pharmacy Group published a report on their inquiry into medicine shortages, which found that the problem was caused principally by the export of medicines intended for NHS patients to other EU countries.

The practice is legal under European provisions for the free movement of goods.

Quotas have been introduced to control the amount of drugs set aside for the NHS but this had been found to exacerbate the problem.

Mr Irranca-Davies said attempts to solve the problem voluntarily had failed, claiming it was time for the UK government to give NHS patients priority over exports through a Patient Service Obligation or other measure.

"There are now between 70 and 80 drugs that are on shortage lists and it's been the case for two or three years," he told BBC Radio Wales.

"Some of the manufacturers justifiably say they're producing more than 150% of what's needed.

"It's more profitable to sell these overseas because of the exchange rate - this isn't a new phenomenon, it has happened before.

"What they do in other European countries is they find one way or another to make their own patients the first priority."

He said that as well as the risk to patients not getting their medicine, doctors and chemists were spending up to 20 hours a week searching for commonly-prescribed drugs.

"What we now have is chemists and doctors - even doctors in hospital as well as GPs - who are spending on average five hours a week on the phone ringing round to get hold of a pack of drugs for something which should be available around the corner in your local chemist.

"Some are spending up to 20 hours a week phoning around."

The Department of Health said it was considering an investigation into the scale of the problem.

A spokesman said: "It is for manufacturers to ensure that any quotas set are flexible enough to cope with reasonable fluctuations in demand.

"Where quotas are used, companies setting them should also make sure that they are set fairly.

"Manufacturers should have their own contingency arrangements in place for pharmacies to be able to obtain medicines directly if they have problems getting hold of them.

"The government does maintain a buffer stock of certain essential medicines that can be released in emergencies. We will take any action necessary in the event of disruption to supply and distribution of medicines that causes serious risk to patients."

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) defended the use of quotas as a legitimate means of ensuring UK patients receive the medicines they need.

Chief executive Stephen Whitehead said: "We know that quotas are not the perfect answer to the problem: they are a sticking plaster not a cure.

"If all the medicines manufacturers provided went to UK pharmacists, they would have in excess of what they need, but while these medicines continue to flow out of the UK these problems will persist."

"Removing quotas would not benefit patients but it could cause great harm."

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