Can the gulf between politicians and the pharmaceutical industry ever be filled?

06 February 2017 - by Tristen Kelso

Martina Anderson MEP's recent statement on the prices of cancer drugs raises some important questions.

Last week, Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson launched a blistering attack against pharmaceutical companies, accusing them of "charging extortionate prices" for much-needed drugs. “Just like I took on the big tobacco companies," she said, "you can be assured that I will also go after the pharmaceuticals.

Speaking at an event to mark World Cancer Day, Anderson said: "it is scandalous that millions of pounds are going into bulging bank accounts of shareholders while the lives of patients are put at risk because of the unacceptable cost increase in cancer treatment drugs".

Her statement is another reminder of the extremely difficult relationship that exists between some of the political parties here in Northern Ireland – Sinn Féin in particular  and 'big pharma', which they see as preying on people who are ill, and imposing undue burdens on health budgets.

Where is the meeting of minds on this deeply emotive issue? For instance, what of the huge spends on research, development and innovation by the same pharmaceutical companies on finding breakthrough treatments, or the life-saving/life-extending work being done via clinical trials in cancer centres across the country? Could it be about the economic and export potential of those same companies investing in local jobs?

Anderson points to how the cost of cancer treatment 'has increased by more than 1000 per cent' since she became an MEP, which seems a stark statistic. Without doubt, local health budgets have seen their drugs-budget spends soar, while in many cases their ability to give access to new specialist medicines  often rejected by NICE on cost grounds – has come under considerable pressure.

What, then, is the solution to enabling health departments to provide citizens with access to these cutting edge drugs, while maintaining a degree of control over their finite budgets? Moreover, what are the opportunities for politicians to learn more about the important work being done by the same pharmaceutical companies in pioneering new treatments?

What is clear, however, is that both sides in the argument could be engaging more than they are currently if this chasm is to be bridged in a way that delivers better outcomes for citizens.