Government must ‘rein in’ drugs companies to tackle spiralling NHS medicines bill

Government must ‘rein in’ drugs companies to tackle spiralling NHS medicines bill

Date: 15 November 2018
Campaigns: Pharma

  • Cost of prescription drugs jumps 10%, rising faster than NHS budget despite recent cash injection

  • 7 of 20 most expensive medicines were developed from publicly-funded research

Health campaigners have warned that the NHS drugs bill will continue to spiral unless the government takes action to tackle the exploitative behaviour of pharmaceutical companies, after NHS England statistics released today showed the NHS spent a record £20.2 billion on prescription drugs last year based on list prices. The figure was a 10.9% rise on the previous year, meaning the cost of medicines continues to rise far faster than the NHS budget, despite the financial boost announced by the Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, last month estimated as an annual increase of  3.1-3.6% (1).

Pressure group Global Justice Now warned that the government needs to take a much stronger role in regulating the pharmaceutical industry if the drugs bill is to get under control and patients are not to miss out on essential treatments. It follows news that the family of a girl with cystic fibrosis have launched a legal challenge after being denied access to breakthrough drug Orkambi, for which manufacturer Vertex Pharmaceuticals is demanding over £100,000 per year and after years of negotiation has refused to offer the drug at a price the NHS can afford (2).

Heidi Chow, pharmaceuticals campaigner at Global Justice Now, said:
“It is outrageous that the NHS is paying such high prices for existing drugs. At the same time, patients are being denied access to effective drugs, even though they exist, because their price tag is just too high for the NHS. We treasure the principle of public healthcare for all, free at the point of use, but this is undermined by our system of privatised medicines. We have to question what is going wrong in this system and recognise that medicines are not luxury goods like handbags, but an urgent necessity. The government must take a much more pro-active role in safeguarding patient access to essential treatments.”

The figures also revealed that for the second year running the NHS spent over £1 billion on medicines where public funding played a substantial role in their development – seven out of the list of the top 20 medicines by spend. A total of £1.3 billion was spent on these medicines in 2017 including arthritis treatment Infliximab and adalimumab that treats a range of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and Crohn’s disease (3).

Chow continued:
“Once again the NHS is putting vast sums towards medicines developed out of publicly-funded research, meaning the public is paying twice. It is time to get a public return on that investment by attaching conditions to public funding so that drugs produced from public research are affordable and accessible for the he NHS as well as other countries around the world.”

A Global Justice Now report on health innovation, released last month with the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, STOP AIDS and Just Treatment, found that the high prices of medicines are causing severe patient access problems worldwide with damaging consequences for health and wellbeing. It outlined a range of policy measures to overhaul the health innovation system, from reforms to intellectual property rules to changes to corporate governance structures.

As an immediate policy action, the report called on governments to pursue their legal right, under WTO rules, to procure affordable generic versions of patented medicines, if companies refuse to drop their prices to levels affordable to national health systems such as the NHS. This could mean huge savings for the NHS. For example, evidence shows that the prices the UK pays for some cancer medicines could be reduced by between 75% and 99.6% if they could be procured as generics. (4)


1. The overall medicines cost at list price in the NHS, before any discounts, in 2017/18 was £20.2 billion, an increase of 10.9% from £18.2 billion in 2016/17 and an increase of 55.3% from £13.0 billion in 2010/11. See

2. Orkambi: Family of girl with cystic fibrosis launch legal challenge over lack of NHS funding for breakthrough drug

3. Pills and Profits: How drug companies make a killing out of public research, October 2017,

4. The People’s Prescription: Re-imagining health innovation to deliver public value, October 2018,