NHS England is under criticism for requesting the delay in prescription of a new drug which is hoped can cure Hepatitis C in nearly all patients. The new drug, Sofosbuvir, has been approved by NICE, who acknowledge that it offers higher cure rates, minimal side effects and shorter treatment durations than the drugs currently on offer. It has also labelled the drug as “cost-effective”; giving it the seal of approval for use within the NHS.
However, at a cost of £35,000 per patient, NHS England has said that the drug is prohibitive and not affordable, and has requested that NHS Trusts delay prescribing Sofosbuvir to eligible patients.
Hepatitis C is a disease usually transmitted through contact with blood of an infected person. It affects liver function which in turn leads to long term, debilitating conditions.
NHS England are not refusing to prescribe the medication in all cases; they are wanting a phased introduction so that smaller numbers of patients receive the treatment at a time. Whilst this may be logical in terms of balancing the books, the reality is that the NHS is knowingly allowing patients to suffer, even though better and curative treatment is available to them.
The debate highlights what has long been thought to be an issue plaguing the NHS; attention on short terms budgets rather than long term overall costs of treatment options. NHS Trusts are managed and judged on budgets for each year, and if all Hepatitis C patients were given the new treatment today, the cost on the current budget would be massive. Even though a 12 week cycle of Sofosbuvir could cure patients, thus saving long term costs to the NHS over the remainder of their lifetime, NHS managers’ decisions mean that a larger cost is spread over a lifetime (thus eating into somebody else’s budget) rather than frontloading a smaller cost per head entirely out of an existing budget.
NHS England has responded, saying it is “supportive of expanded new treatment options … and has already begun funding … and phased investment in hepatitis C services does not mean service reductions elsewhere”.