Regulator may take action on drug prices

European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager. Photo: AFP
European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager. Photo: AFP

Ireland’s competition watchdog is monitoring the pharmaceutical sector here after concerns were raised regarding pricing.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) said this could give rise to potential enforcement action. It added that it could not comment further. The prices charged by big pharmaceutical companies for some drugs have attracted criticism following a number of high-profile cases.

“Excessive pricing by dominant undertakings is unlawful under Irish and EU Competition law, although in practice the complexities faced by regulators in establishing a price to be excessive have cooled enforcement action. However, there has been growing political pressure on the pharmaceutical sector in Ireland,” Matheson partners Helen Kelly and Kate McKenna wrote in an article published earlier this week.

It has also been an area of interest for European competition authorities.

European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said last month: “Companies should be rewarded for producing these pharmaceuticals, to ensure that they keep making them into the future. But when the price of a drug suddenly goes up by several hundred per cent, this is something the Commission may look at.”

She was speaking after EU competition regulators said they would investigate whether Aspen Pharmacare was charging excessive prices for five key cancer drugs.

The European Commission said it was examining if Aspen had imposed hefty and unjustified price increases of up to several hundred percent, and if had withdrawn the drugs in some EU countries or threatened to do so in others.

Aspen acquired the medicines after their patent protection expired.

In Ireland the HSE is the body responsible for determining which drugs will be paid for by the taxpayer and made available through the health system.

Typically, it has to negotiate pricing deals with drug manufacturers to try and preserve limited resources, while also trying to get the best outcomes for patients. One recent high-profile negotiation was with the manufacturer of cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi.

“Because of the significant monies involved, [the HSE] must ensure that the best price is achieved, as these commitments are often multi-million euro investments on an on-going basis,” Health Minister Simon Harris told the Dáil last week when asked about a particular drug.

In April, Pharmaceutical manufacturers’ group the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA) said Ireland was lagging behind other European countries in making medicines available. It has a pricing and supply agreement in place with the authorities here. “It is not good enough that patients in Ireland should be among the last in western Europe to have access to these new medicines,” IPHA chief executive Oliver O’Connor said.

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