A price-hiking drug company has been hit by the UK watchdog’s biggest ever fine

Sam Woolfe

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has fined drug company Pfizer a record £84.2m for its role in ramping up the cost of an epilepsy drug by 2,600%.

The medication in question is phenytoin. This drug is widely used for a range of epileptic seizures. Pfizer used to market the drug under the name Epanutin, but then sold the rights to British company Flynn Pharma. It was then debranded, which meant it was no longer subject to price regulation. 100mg packs of the capsules soared from £2.83 to £67.50 in 2012, reducing to £54 in May 2014. As a result, NHS spending on the drug rose from £2m to £50m in a year. The company was able to do this because there was little competition.

Cruel profit-making

This record fine brings into focus how unethical these drug price hikes are. Philip Marsden, chairman of the CMA’s case decision group, said:

The companies deliberately exploited the opportunity offered by debranding to hike up the price for a drug which is relied upon by many thousands of patients.

He added:

This is the highest fine the CMA has imposed and it sends out a clear message to the sector that we are determined to crack down on such behaviour.

Both Pfizer and Flynn plan to appeal the CMA’s verdict. Flynn chief executive David Fakes argues it is unfair for them to be punished because they were still selling the phenytoin in capsule form for 25-40% less than phenytoin tablets produced by another supplier.

But the CMA might not buy into this line of argument. Just because other suppliers are charging even more for this drug, it does not justify Flynn’s massive rise in pricing. Pointing to greater wrongdoing doesn’t lessen the blame. Flakes is right in one respect, though. Sky-high drug prices are a huge problem in Big Pharma. And that’s the case whether it’s the NHS picking up the bill, or individuals.

Business as usual

A US study published back in August concluded that:

High drug prices are the result of the approach the United States has taken to granting government-protected monopolies to drug manufacturers…

There are many disturbing facts about the high price of prescription drugs:

  • Prices increased at eight times the rate of inflation [paywall] for 30 prescription drugs.
  • The average annual retail price of drugs was over $11,000 in 2013 for a patient with a chronic illness.
  • Denmark spends only 35 cents per capita on prescription drugs for every $1 spent by the US.
  • 20% of Americans who take prescription drugs say they or a family member have not taken the prescribed dose because the drugs are so expensive.
  • 55% of adults aged 50 and over did not refill a prescription because of the cost involved.

As previously reported at The Canary, pharma CEO Martin Shkreli caused outrage when he jacked up the price of life-saving HIV drug Daraprim from $13 to $750 per pill. That’s a rise of over 5,000%. And it put this essential medicine out of reach for pretty much everyone who needs it.

Not all hope is lost…

Some students in Australia recently made Daraprim in their high school lab for about $2 a dose. This endeavour, along with the CMA’s decision, shows that there is clearly a lot of pushback against Big Pharma’s most unethical practices. No patient should be forced to deny themselves the medicine that they need.

Get Involved!

– Check out more articles from The Canary on Health.

– Support Epilepsy Action, Epilepsy Research, and the Epilepsy Society.

Featured image via TBIT/Pixabay

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