June 3, 2010 / 11:02 PM / 8 years ago

UK scheme for MS drugs "a costly failure" -experts

* Scheme launched in 2002 “wastes 50 million pounds a year”

* Patients fared worse than expected, but scheme continues

* Experts say drug firms were main beneficiaries

By Kate Kelland

LONDON, June 4 (Reuters) - A scheme enabling multiple sclerosis patients to get expensive drugs paid for by Britain’s state-funded National Health System has been a “costly failure”, health experts and economists said on Friday.

In a series of commentaries in The Lancet, health economists said the scheme had wasted an estimated 50 million pounds ($74 mln) a year since its 2002 launch and should now be abandoned.

The drugs included in the scheme were Biogen Inc’s (BIIB.O), Avonex, Bayer’s (BAYGn.DE) Betaseron, and Merck KGaA’s (MRCG.DE) Rebif, as well as Copaxone from Israel’s Teva Pharmaceuticals (TEVA.TA).

“The scheme was a success for the drug companies, who sold at close to full price to the NHS,” said James Raftery, a professor of health technology assessment at Southampton University. “For the NHS, however, the scheme can be judged only a costly failure.”

Raftery said an assessment of the scheme in 2009 by its scientific advisory group, which included the drug firms, found that patients fared worse on the drugs than had been expected, suggesting the medicines were not cost effective. Yet the panel decided to continue with the project.

The risk sharing scheme was set up by the government in 2002 to make disease-modifying multiple sclerosis drugs available on the NHS after the country’s health costs watchdog, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), ruled that they were not cost effective.

Under the terms of the scheme, the government agreed to pay for the drugs on the NHS while research was carried out to assess their long-term cost effectiveness. The agreement was that the NHS would then gradually stop paying for the drugs if patients did not appear to be benefiting.

In 2009, seven years after the scheme was set up, the first analysis of the data published in the British Medical Journal showed that patient outcomes were worse than predicted, but the scheme’s scientific advisory group said it was too soon to reduce prices without further analysis.

Christopher McCabe, a professor of health economics at the University of Leeds, said in a separate analysis that the decision to delay a price review was not justified.

“It is difficult to see how they can justify such an expensive divergence from the scheme rules,” he wrote.

Both experts, whose commentaries were also backed by several colleagues, questioned the independence of the advisory group, which included patients, doctors and drug firms.

McCabe added that if a proper assessment had been done after the first two years of the scheme, the NHS could have already saved around 250 million pounds ($369 million).

But Alastair Compston a professor of neurology at Cambridge University, who helped set up the scheme, argued that although it had not been run entirely properly or adequately governed, it had helped patients.

“Regardless of the scheme’s outcome, it has advanced the situation for people with multiple sclerosis,” he wrote. “Now that the principles of when and who to treat are better understood, more effective treatments can be developed.” (Editing by David Cowell)

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