The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has urged the European Commission to investigate pharma-industry “unethical” practices on drug pricing, after a scandal revealed last week in Italy.
The Italian anti-trust authority last Friday (14 October) issued a €5 million fine to the pharmaceutical company Aspen Pharma, accusing it of “blackmailing” the Italian medicines agency.
Particularly, Aspen threatened the agency with stopping the supply of vital oncology medicines for patients in the Italian market, especially children and the elderly, if they refused to increase the drugs’ price.
In its statement, Italy’s drugs’ agency stressed that the pharma company by virtue of being the only supplier of this type of anticancer drugs, abused its position in the market and the fine concerned “fixed unfair prices” which reached increases up to 1,500%.
BEUC noted that its Italian member Altroconsumo launched the case last year after consumers complained about the shortages of these medicines.
Aspen purchased the anticancer drug package by GlaxoSmithKline and its patent expired ten years ago, raising concerns about the reasons for increased pricing.
Aspen then started negotiations with AIFA and adopted an aggressive strategy, which resulted in threatening to interrupt the direct supply of medicines to the Italian market.
The anticancer drugs temporarily disappeared from the market and reappeared with a price increase of up to 1,500%.
BEUC’s Head of the Food and Health Department Ilaria Passarani said she was dismayed by the kind of pernicious practice which puts profits before consumers’ health.
“We are talking about life-saving anticancer drugs being withdrawn from the market and reintroduced with an unaffordable price tag. The impact on consumers is not only serious but also unjustified,” she said, adding that shortages have become commonplace in the EU.
“Is the problem an unavailable ingredient or a deleterious commercial strategy? While the first is deplorable and requires solutions, the second one is totally avoidable and requires sanctions,” she stated.
Referring to the conclusions of EU Health ministers’ council in June, Passarani urged the European Commission to investigate similar unethical tactics in other countries.
EU institutions “alarmed”
Last June, EU Health ministers recognized that in many cases, there was a market failure where patient access to effective and affordable essential medicines is endangered by “very high and unsustainable price levels, market withdrawal of products that are out-of-patent, or when new products are not introduced to national markets for business economic strategies and that individual governments have sometimes limited influence in such circumstances”.
They also urged member states to seek voluntary cooperation between each other in order to achieve higher affordability and better access.
In an interview with EurActiv.com earlier this month, Bulgarian Health Minister Petar Moskov said that Sofia and Bucharest would soon sign an intergovernmental agreement to jointly negotiate the pricing and availability of medicines with pharmaceutical companies.
The European Parliament has also expressed concerns over the drugs’ accessibility and affordability.
Spanish Socialist MEP Soledad Cabezón Ruiz (S&D), who is the author of the Access to Medicines report, recently called for EU-wide measures on the pharmaceutical market to reinforce the negotiation capacities of member states in order to achieve fair prices for medicines.
Can the Commission act?
Member states have the full competence to decide which medicinal products are reimbursed and at what price, while the European Commission is exclusively responsible for the competition of medicinal products on the EU market.
Yannis Natsis, Policy Coordinator at the European Public Health Alliance, recently blamed the European Commission for a “low” political appetite to address the situation.
“The Commission is too outdated to keep referring to the competence issue,” he said.
“It might not have exclusive competence on health but when it comes to pharma regulation it has a lot of power, through the European Medicines Agency, so they define the different elements that play a role in the question of pricing.”