THERE are broader issues at play in yesterday’s High Court ruling that the NHS is responsible for funding a new preventative drug than appear on the surface.
Superficially, it was a dispute between councils and the health service as to who should pay for such medication.
The NHS said councils should because they’re the ones that deal with public health and prevention. Councils said it was up to the NHS as they don’t have the money.
Though of course the NHS is hardly awash with cash thanks to six years of Conservative and Liberal Democrat cuts and the crushing burden of private finance initiative debt rung up by New Labour and the Tories.
Councils meanwhile have had their budgets slashed by 40 per cent, forcing them to drastically pare back the services they provide.
Obviously, both should have their funding levels restored and expanded, with more radical action taken to prevent public money being leeched off by profiteers.
However, something else needs addressing: the cost of brand-name drugs to the health service.
The goal should surely be that NHS experts can evaluate new medications and, if they prove safe and effective, introduce them without too much fuss.
But the eye-watering prices charged by pharmaceutical companies for their patented wares interferes with this, in a way that shows very clearly how the capitalist market stands at odds with human needs.
The story told by, say, Pfizer goes like this: it spends vast sums of money on life-saving new treatments and needs the monopoly granted by drug patents in order to recoup the cost and fund yet more research.
Naturally that’s not exactly the case. The biggest drugs firms spend far more on sales and marketing than on research and development.
Picking Pfizer again, for no reason in particular, in 2013 it spent $6.6 billion on research and $11.4bn on marketing, lobbying, etc.
Only one of the top 10 that year spent more on research — and only 4 per cent more than its marketing budget.
And obviously these companies’ research often depends on previous publicly funded work, forming a huge public subsidy to private profit.
Questions also arise as to what drugs giants spend their research budgets on. A British Medical Journal study in 2012 noted that the market rewarded companies that developed drugs very similar to existing ones — but different enough that they could be patented and profited from.
“Pharmaceutical research and development turns out mostly minor variations on existing drugs,” Donald Light and Joel Lexchin wrote.
“Sales from these drugs generate steady profits throughout the ups and downs of blockbusters coming off patents.”
Meanwhile killer diseases such as malaria and TB don’t attract much attention because the victims are mostly poor, developing remedies can be difficult, and as such the problem is left yet again to public funding.
No-one doubts the importance of drugs research and manufacturing. But the current situation where pharmaceutical companies pursue the most profitable products over the most needed medicines, spend billions to promote and sell them regardless of the medical need, and ration access to life-saving treatments through high prices is unacceptable.
Instead we should aim for an ambitious programme of publicly funded research that is coupled with strong support for manufacturing affordable “generic” medicines.
The research having been done, the science and the end result should be offered to all in need. No-one should suffer from treatable diseases because someone else wants to fill their pockets.
Having brought some rationality to the system, health officials wouldn’t have to have waste time on court fights like the one we’ve just witnessed and instead decide in the best interests of public health.