Thursday 21 September 2017

Pharma companies are 'kidnapping' patients with free drugs

ACCUSATION: Harris has slammed big drug companies. Photo: Tom Burke
ACCUSATION: Harris has slammed big drug companies. Photo: Tom Burke
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Health Minister Simon Harris has accused international pharmaceutical companies of "kidnapping" Irish patients with samples of life-saving drugs before demanding a ransom from the Government once the free trial is over.

In his strongest comments on the drug price controversy to date, Mr Harris launched a scathing attack on "unethical" big pharma companies demanding millions of euro from the Department of Health for drugs which could save or improve lives.

"I'm really fed up at this stage of drug companies pretending their reason for existing is to protect the interests of Irish patients," Mr Harris told the Sunday Independent.

"There are many great companies out there with innovative technology but the people who are charged with looking after patients are me, the Department of Health, the HSE and the Government.

"We're the people who are standing up for patients. Drug companies stand up for their shareholders, their investors and that's fair enough, it's a capitalist and free world," he added.

The minister is currently in discussions with manufacturer Vertex Pharmaceuticals over the price of cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi.

He is also seeking to spearhead an international response to drug companies charging countries extortionate prices for drugs.

He has made contact with his counterparts in the UK, Scotland, Australia and Canada about drug prices, and has also raised the issue at a recent EU meeting of health ministers.

The minister said the companies are distorting the facts and "holding Irish taxpayers to ransom and nearly kidnapping our patients, by saying 'you must pay this amount of money or we will not give this life-saving drug or this life- altering drug to the patient'".

He added it was "immoral and unethical" for pharma companies to initially give drugs to seriously sick patients free of charge, and then pull the medication when the Government said it could not afford to pay for the treatment.

"It's completely unethical and immoral. We have in this country a really good track record of providing access to innovative drugs but I'm not going to be bullied or intimidated by big pharma. I refused to do it twice already," he said.

In an interview in today's Sunday Independent, the Health Minister also revealed he is willing to pay private hospitals to take patients from public hospitals to deal with the trolley crisis if it escalates during the winter months.

The proposal was suggested to him by Labour Party TD Alan Kelly, who has said he believes it is "immoral" for private hospitals to be "rolling out the red carpet" for patients while public hospitals are dangerously over-crowded with trolleys.

Mr Harris said he is "absolutely" open to the idea but warned "it is not as straightforward as it sounds".

"You have to remember a lot of people who go to our emergency departments are an emergency and need access to 24-hour emergency departments, they need access to ICU, high-dependency beds, very specialist medical care and not all of our private hospitals have those facilities," the minster said.

"When I came to health I was very clear on this. I really value the Irish health service and want to see it significantly invested in but I won't become a prisoner to ideology," he added. He also plans to open HSE-run GP clinics so "salaried GPs" can focus on medical care rather than worry about the business side of running a practice.

Sunday Independent

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