UK Health Minister Filibusters Bill To Use Off-Patent Drugs To Provide Effective New Treatments At Low Cost

from the and-why-on-earth-would-he-do-that? dept

Here on Techdirt we often write about pharmaceutical companies doing what they can to string out their drug monopolies as long as possible, sometimes resorting to quite extraordinary approaches. But whatever tricks they use to extend their monopolies, one day those end, and at that point generic manufacturers can make the drug in question without needing a license. You’d think governments would be delighted by the downward pressure this exerts on prices, since it means that they can provide life-changing and life-saving treatments much more cheaply. But last week, we had the bizarre spectacle of a UK government health minister filibustering a Bill that would have encouraged doctors to prescribe more off-patent medicines. As the Independent newspaper reports:

A Conservative health minister has deliberately blocked a new law to provide cheap and effective drugs for the [UK’s National Health Service] by championing medicines whose patents have expired.

Alistair Burt spoke for nearly half an hour to “filibuster” the proposed Off-Patent Drugs Bill, a plan that had cross-party support from backbenchers.

The Off-Patent Drugs Bill attempted to address a particular problem that off-patent drugs suffer from. Although anyone can manufacture and sell them for their original purpose, more innovative uses require a new license for that application. Since the drugs are off-patent, the profit margins are lower, and generic manufacturers are reluctant to pay for the re-licensing process. An article in the online law journal “Keep calm and talk law”, reporting on an earlier unsuccessful attempt to have off-patent drugs used more widely, gave the following examples of how cheap drugs could have a major impact:

Simvastatin was originally licensed for treating individuals with high cholesterol and although recently shown to slow brain atrophy in later stages of multiple sclerosis by over 40 per cent, it has not been relicensed for that purpose. Further, Lixisenatide and liraglutide, two common diabetes drugs, have been found to have a use in the prevention of Alzheimer’s but is now also off patent.

The Bill in question would have required the UK government to carry out the re-licensing, thus allowing generic manufacturers to market the cheap off-patent drugs for new treatments. But the UK government minister rejected this approach, saying “there is another pathway”, without spelling out what that might be. Perhaps he had in mind the possibility of prescribing off-patent drugs “off label”, which in theory is an option open to UK doctors. But doing so means they would assume the legal responsibility for both negligent and non-negligent harm to the patient — something that many are understandably reluctant to do. However, the “Keep calm and talk law” article offers a possible solution to that problem:

the introduction of a charitable organisation which would insure doctors against any negligence claims resulting from the prescription of specified off-patent drugs for unlicensed purposes. This could reassure doctors enough that they would more readily prescribe some useful off-patent drugs such as the examples given above. Although much research would still need to be done into whether a charity such as this could work in reality, in principle this is a solution which seems sensible.

It’s possible that the UK government minister had precisely this approach in mind when he unceremoniously blocked a Bill that was trying to save both lives and money. But it’s hard not to suspect that his “another pathway” might turn out to involve lots more lucrative pharma patents instead.

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Comments on “UK Health Minister Filibusters Bill To Use Off-Patent Drugs To Provide Effective New Treatments At Low Cost”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Take a guess

Why would a politician stonewall and shut down a proposed law that would involve more generic drugs being used, rather than expensive drugs sold by companies who quite enjoy facing as little competition as possible, and are willing to ‘donate’ to those that ‘protect’ their interests?

Do you really need to ask?

Anonymous Coward says:

“A Conservative health minister”
Enough said.

I used to equate “conservative” with “family values”, “christian morals” (as in love your neighbor) and a general sense of “noblesse oblige”. Nowadays I equate it with large corporations, monopolies and greed.

Also, he probably has at least a couple of fingers in that pie. At the very least from campaign contributions.

Also, Martin Shkreli.

David says:

Re: Re:

I’m pretty conservative (fiscal responsibility, smaller government getting out of our lives, etc). But this still floors me.

Part of the question is why is there a need for a proposed law enabling more generics in the first place? Why aren’t doctors able to prescribe medications, patented or not, that they feel adequately treat the patient?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That is a pretty common problem across Europe for conservatives: Now that economy rules the waves in europe, their almost religious pro-business mindset has become a problem because of the heavy sacrifices they are willing to make.

Don’t get me wrong, the difference between a german and british conservative is night and day in many aspects, but both are acting according to austerity principles and curse ECB to hell for the quantitative easing.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why was it filibustered? Good question, let’s see…

But the UK government minister rejected this approach, saying “there is another pathway”, without spelling out what that might be.

Well that certainly didn’t clear anything up, now did it? If he didn’t want people to try and come up with their own guesses as to his motivations, he probably should have made those motivations clear, not just claimed that there was an alternative without saying what it was.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, Steve’s right. On Fridays, British MPs try and pass what are known as “private members’ bills” (bills proposed by individual MPs, but not supported by the party machine) and each side spends a lazy afternoon voting down the other side’s bills, while desperately trying to look like the British Parliament actually does anything on a Friday.
That’s literally what happens.
You and Glyn might be absolutely correct about there being an ulterior motive behind voting down this particular bill, but it would have been voted down as a matter of routine, and/or filibustered to death by the relevant government Minister anyway, because that’s the tradition.
I’m now going to have to go and be sick over having written that.

rick f says:

Sad but totally not surprising.

Most ministers are not representatives of their constituents in practice — rather, they represent the special interests of their true constituiencies: namely, whichever industry sector they ‘represent’ to the Cabinet. The Minister of Health isn’t there to lobby for patients, but the health care industry; The Minister of Defence isn’t there to lobby for security but the defense industry; The Minister of Education is not there to represent students and parents, but rather teachers and administrators.

‘Yes Prime Minister’ did a few great send-ups of this situation years ago.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

There's a lot more to this

“Off-Patent” is newspeak for “Off-Label”, NOT “Generic”.

What’s the difference? If it’s “made law”, you’ll see doctors prescribing things like Statins as “morning after” pills, and the government paying for the bulk of it.

It would also trash the Truth in Advertising laws in the US, bringing back everyone’s favorite drug: Snake Oil.

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