Ministers deny GlaxoSmithKline claims of drug delays

Media caption,
Sir Andrew Witty from GSK said drugs were being "systematically delayed" from introduction and reimbursement

Ministers have rejected claims by the UK's biggest drug firm GlaxoSmithKline that new cancer treatments are being delayed to save money.

"Strategic thoughtfulness" was being lost in the "stampede" to cut costs, GSK chief Sir Andrew Witty said.

It was a Europe-wide problem as governments coped with austerity and got more anxious about debts, he added.

But the Department of Health said the approval process was getting faster and it had increased spending on new drugs.

Mr Witty, the head of the pharmaceutical giant, told the BBC: "We're seeing oncology drugs being systematically delayed from introduction and reimbursement.

"We're seeing a variety of the more innovative, and yes more expensive medicines, being delayed in a whole series of different diseases across Europe."

"Ultimately it's one of those situations where the drift will be imperceptibly happening, but when you look back in five or 10 years, a huge gap will have opened up."

He also said the government had cut prices by 5% a year as it got more and more anxious about its debt position - costing the firm £300m a year.

New drugs are referred to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) by the government, where their cost-effectiveness are assessed.

'Increased health spending'

The DoH said the government had increased spending on health, including new drugs, with thousands more patients getting access to the most advanced treatments.

"The need for careful assessment of drugs' effectiveness by Nice is particularly important for patients and taxpayers during a time of economic austerity," it said.

"The government has not changed any assessment processes relating to cancer drugs.

"Furthermore, drug companies need to look hard at the high costs they are asking of the health service for their latest treatments."

But Prof Jonathan Waxman, professor of Oncology at Imperial College London, said Nice had blocked a number of new cancer drugs offering "significant benefits" to patients.

"Unfortunately, the committee that regulates their availability in the UK has ruled against many of them," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"And they've ruled against them on the basis of what many oncologists, many doctors, many cancer doctors believe are unfair grounds."

Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham also accused the prime minister of breaking his general election commitment to cancer patients.

"With a great fanfare, he said he would deliver quicker access to drugs for cancer patients," said Mr Burnham.

"Today we hear that his government is in fact delaying new treatments to save money.

"If true, this is a shameful state of affairs and a false economy. The prime minister must be kept to his pre-election promises."

But Alan Maynard, a professor of health economics, argued drug firms were demanding much higher prices than were reasonable, and the economies were justified.

"Nice are looking for good evidence and the industry is rather poor in doing good trials and telling us about the full effectiveness - which is often marginal," he said.

"I think it's quite inevitable that in a period of austerity there will be downward pressure on the introduction of new drugs that are not demonstrably good in terms of improving patient health and which are extraordinarily expensive."

GlaxoSmithKline reported pre-tax profits of £1.9bn during the three months to the end of December 2011, up from a £193m loss during the same period in 2010.

For the whole year, the firm reported pre-tax profit of £8.2bn, up from £4.5bn in 2010.

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