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Health minister Varadkar attacks drug firms' 'blackmail'

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Leo Varadkar. Photo: Damien Eagers

Leo Varadkar. Photo: Damien Eagers

Leo Varadkar. Photo: Damien Eagers

The war between Health Minister Leo Varadkar and major drug companies over the high cost of certain specialised drugs has escalated.

Last week, in a Seanad debate, the Health Minister alleged that tactics employed by the drugs companies to keep prices up included "moral blackmail".

In the wake of the Minister's comments, the chair of the Oireachtas Health Committee, Mr Jerry Buttimer, confirmed the Committee would shortly launch a series of public hearings into the issue.

Mr Varadkar made the 'moral blackmail' comment during a Seanad debate with Labour Senator John Whelan over the Mary Gorman case. Ms Gorman has, for two years, been seeking new medication called Solaris to treat a serious medical condition, PNP. The treatment was recommended by her consultant and haematology team at St James's Hospital.

Mr Varadkar told the Seanad that the drug, which is manufactured by Alexion Pharma, would, according to a HSE study, cost €437,247 per patient per annum.

In an astonishing critique of the company, Mr Varadkar said: ''Members may be interested to know that Alexion, as a company, has a revenue of €1.15 billion, had profits of €253 million and the chief executive officer of the company is paid €12 million a year.''

The Health Minister also claimed that: ''In Belgium in 2013, politicians of government and opposition alike alleged that the company was guilty of moral blackmail when it was discovered Alexion had hired a PR company to help a nine-year-old child who was denied the drug by the Belgian authorities.''

''The parents of the boy believed that they were being helped by a patients' organisation and were not told that a PR company was behind it. That is the kind of thing we are dealing with in these cases," he said.

The Health Minister also claimed: ''This is a company that is very aggressive in the way it prices its medicines.''

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Varadkar stressed that his concerns were ''less about saving money than giving patients access to new medicines''.

He added: ''Ireland still pays more for drugs than many other European countries. If we were getting similar prices to the UK, we could afford to approve more new, innovative medicines much sooner and treat more patients.''

Health Committee chair, Jerry Buttimer, told the Sunday Independent: ''We intend to hold a series of public hearings where we will call pharmaceutical companies to account for their high prices, we require much more transparency in this arena.''

Labour Senator John Whelan who, with Fianna Fail Senator Thomas Byrne, raised the issue, said it was time to confront the scenario where HSE drug costs have rocketed to €2bn, up four-fold in a decade, while staff, services and wages in health have been cut by 20pc.

Senator Whelan also commended the Minister for ''his big call in throwing down the gauntlet regarding emotional blackmail by pharmaceutical companies against the taxpayer''.

Sunday Independent