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Our NHS should not be a cash cow for profiteering pharmaceutical companies

AS THE Conservative government teeters on the brink of collapse, a case being heard in the High Court serves as a timely reminder of what’s at stake for us as a country.

Pharmaceutical firms Novartis and Bayer are determined to force clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) to use their pricy patented drugs rather than a cheaper alternative that could save the National Health Service half a billion a year.

The 12 north-east England CCGs who wish to use anti-cancer drug Avastin to treat age-related vision loss are “driven by cost alone,” Novartis’s lawyer Tom de la Mare QC objects.

But we are constantly reminded of the funding crisis that grips our NHS, thanks to years of underfunding by the Conservative government.

Warnings from the British Medical Association that the NHS now faces what was once termed a “winter crisis” all year round, chronic staffing shortages (exacerbated by arbitrary caps on visas for skilled workers and the “hostile environment” created by successive Tory home secretaries) and dogged campaigning by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party forced Theresa May to promise an extra £20 billion for the service on its 70th anniversary.

That money and more is urgently needed.

Rising NHS costs are used as an excuse for all sorts of dubious proposals.

These range from the “pay a tenner to see your GP” periodically floated by Tory outriders to a specific NHS tax separate from general income tax, as toyed with by a number of apparently well-meaning “reformers.”

They would do better to look at the unnecessary costs our health service faces.

PFI contracts are one major area that needs overhaul, and Labour has promised to end the racket and renationalise these.

Cuts to local government funding which affect social care provision, with worse care for the vulnerable leading to more hospitalisations and higher costs, are another.

But the fees charged by Big Pharma are in the frame too.

The only argument the drug giants can put forward to defend their monopoly is that using “unlicensed medicines” (as Avastin has not been licensed for the treatment of wet age-related macular degeneration) is “quite inappropriate” — though de la Mare admits that it is “on any view equivalently efficacious” to its “considerably more expensive” counterparts.

Drug manufacturers often defend the high price of their products by arguing that fat profit margins are required to fund research into new medicines.

But as the late writer and socialist campaigner Mike Marqusee wrote for this newspaper in 2013 with regard to a typical industry player, “like other pharmaceutical companies, Celgene spends the majority of its revenue not on R&D but on sales, marketing, lobbying, legal fees, acquisitions, plus the 26 per cent dispersed in profits. In keeping with an industry-wide trend, revenues and profits have grown faster than investment in R&D.”

A report issued by Stop Aids and Global Justice Now last year found that the NHS is often forced to pay through the nose for drugs developed with public money — such as the prostate cancer drug Abiraterone, developed by the mainly public-funded Institute for Cancer Research and costing the NHS £98 per patient per day when a generic alternative would slash that down to £4.

This madness is the unavoidable consequence of a system based on the primacy of corporate rights over human rights.

Amid the sound and fury over Brexit, we should remember that we need a Labour government not because the Tories are incompetent negotiators and certainly not so we can turn the clock back to some fictitious pre-referendum golden age, but to fundamentally shift power back to the people and build a Britain that puts need before greed.

Corbyn’s is the first Labour government-in-waiting in many decades that has the vision and courage to make that happen.

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