Britain’s competition watchdog is accusing a Canadian drug company of making tens of millions of dollars by overcharging the British healthcare system and exploiting its patients.
Until this year, Concordia International was the U.K.’s only provider of liothyronine, a thyroid drug that’s primarily used to treat a condition caused by a deficiency of thyroid hormone. For British patients, such as Felicity Hart who had her thyroid removed in 2010, the tablets are literally a life-saver.
“If I weren’t taking (liothyronine), within a few weeks I’d be liable to get into a coma,” Hart told Global News at her home in Hertfordshire, England.
“It’s like having every bit of energy sucked out of your body. It’s impossible to do anything, really. It’s a living death.”
Over the last decade, the price of her made-in-Canada medication has skyrocketed.
Between November 2007 and July 2017, the amount the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) paid per pack rose from £4.46 to £258.19 — an increase of almost 6,000 per cent.
“I think it’s absolutely disgusting that they should be making money off of sick people,” Hart says.
While Hart’s pricey prescription is still covered by the NHS, many other British patients have been told, because of the rising cost, they’re no longer eligible to receive an NHS prescription.
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Tara Riddle says she was practically bedridden for nearly two years until she was finally prescribed liothyronine. But last year, her doctor told her the drug was no longer an option.
“He said, ‘I’m very sorry, but I’m not allowed to give you anymore because they’re too expensive.’” Riddle told Global News.
“It’s not fair. It’s just not right.”
Riddle researched the drugs online and discovered similar medication was available in other countries for a fraction of the price. She says a comparison earlier this year revealed different manufactures in other European countries, such as Germany, were charging around £25 compared to £922 in the UK. (That works out to $42 in Germany and $1,560 in the U.K.)
“It just doesn’t make sense, does it? Somebody is making an absolute mint and we’re being penalized because they say it’s too expensive,” Riddle said.
The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) responded to those concerns Wednesday, announcing that it had provisionally found that Concordia International had “abused its dominant position to overcharge the NHS” by hiking the price of liothyronine, despite the fact that it says “production costs remained broadly stable.”
In a written statement, Concordia International responded by suggesting the price increase was a result of the U.K.’s regulations being stricter than other countries.
Over the past 10 years, the statement said, a “significant investment has been made in this medicine to ensure its continued availability for patients in the UK, to the specifications required by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the U.K.”
When Global News read Concordia International’s statement to Amir Attaran, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who studies drug pricing, he laughed.
“Concordia’s excuse doesn’t have the slightest bit of credibility to it,” Attaran said.
“Really, what this is about is a greedy company that is willing to gouge consumers and raise prices of medicines, even if that means some people don’t get their medicines and might get sick or die. That’s the definition of unethical.”
Attaran says the regulatory requirements in the UK are similar to those in Canada. He likens Concordia International’s tactics to those used by American businessman Martin Shkreli, the former pharmaceuticals company CEO who was once known as “the most hated man in America.”
“They’re just Martin Shkreli dipped in maple syrup and wearing moose antlers,” Attaran says. “It’s a scam, and that’s all it is. Except now, it’s a Canadian scam.”
If the CMA’s provisional finding is upheld, the British consumer watchdog can impose a fine of up to 10 per cent of Concordia’s annual worldwide turnover. In its statement, Concordia says it only acquired the international segment of the company in 2015 and rejects any assertion that competition law has been infringed.
The company offered no suggestions that it plans to drop its drug prices anytime soon.