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Health: NICE

Volume 721: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government which groups were consulted prior to the announcement that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence was to lose the power to decide that some drugs may not be supplied by the National Health Service.

My Lords, it is important to make clear that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence does not have any powers to ban the use of drugs in the NHS, so suggestions that this is a role that will be removed from it are based on a misunderstanding of the position. Our NHS White Paper makes it clear that the role of NICE will continue and, indeed, that it will be extended.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I am a little confused, but perhaps he can help me to understand the change. In the world that he envisages, is it intended that every single GP consortium will take its own decision about which drugs it is willing to fund? If that is the case, will it be about every single individual drug or treatment? And, if that is the case, can the Minister explain how he will protect patients from the uncertainty and confusion that must arise from a return to a postcode lottery of that magnificence?

My Lords, currently the NHS is faced with the decision of whether to say in effect yes or no to a new drug at the price that is proposed by a pharmaceutical company. We want to change that so that the price of a drug to the NHS is based on an assessment of its value, rather than pharmaceutical companies being free to set whatever price they choose and expecting the NHS to pay. So value-based pricing, which is the term we have used, will ensure that licensed and effective drugs are available to NHS clinicians and patients at a price to the NHS that reflects the value that they bring. That should get rid of the postcode lottery.

My Lords, of course we already have four NHSs in our United Kingdom. What discussions are there among the authorities of the four NHSs when decisions are being taken about medications of this kind?

My noble friend is, as ever, on the case. My officials in the Department of Health are in active discussions with their counterparts in each of the devolved Administrations on the kinds of changes that we envisage to the pricing of medicines.

Does the Minister agree that to devolve responsibility for prescribing expensive drugs to GPs faces them with a very difficult ethical dilemma? Should they prescribe a very expensive drug, costing thousands of pounds, with only marginal benefit for the heart-rending patient with cancer facing them, knowing that to do so may prevent them from funding 20 or 30 patients requiring eye operations or hip replacements or drugs for schizophrenia, or should they refuse that treatment? Have the Government thought through the implications of devolving the cost-benefit analysis that NICE does so well?

My Lords, I think the noble Lord has perhaps misunderstood the purpose of the plans that we have set out. Prior to the introduction of value-based pricing, we will continue to ensure that the NHS funds drugs that have been positively appraised by NICE. I hope that that reassures him that clinicians are not going to be placed in an awkward position. We will be consulting on our plans for value-based pricing before the end of the year, but I can assure the House that the point of moving to a new pricing system is to increase patient access to new effective drugs. That is what we aim to do.

My Lords, my noble friend has already spoken about the time it takes to develop a drug—often many years. This costs money and accounts, in some cases, for the high price of the drug.

My noble friend, with her experience, is of course quite right. I am told that it costs upwards of $1 billion to develop a new molecule and bring it to the market. It is a very expensive process. That is recognised in the freedom of pricing that currently exists for drug companies at launch and in the patents that they are able to enjoy in subsequent years.

My Lords, I declare an interest as I was in the Department of Health at the time that NICE was created. If the Minister accepts that the NHS, which spends upwards of £11 billion a year on drugs, is right to have a clinically-led method of assessing whether they work satisfactorily, will he confirm—there seems to be some confusion—that that will not be replaced by some hundreds of separate ways of doing the same thing? Will he also confirm that, whatever new arrangements he has in mind, the Government will speed up the process? There is sometimes that complaint about the NICE process at the moment.

My Lords, we have been very clear that NICE, which enjoys international pre-eminence in the evaluation of drugs and health technologies, will continue to have an important expert advisory role, including the assessment of clinical benefits for new medicines. The noble Lord will know, I am sure, that in recent years NICE has done a lot to speed up its evaluations of new medicines and has introduced end-of-life flexibilities, for example, which have meant that patients have had increased and improved access to those new medicines.