The body that represents the pharmaceutical industry has said it would cover the costs of introducing potentially lifesaving cancer drugs to Northern Ireland.
New drugs available in England but not Northern Ireland that could prolong lives would not cost Stormont anything extra, according to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).
It also confirmed to the Belfast Telegraph that it would refund any increase over last year's costs within three months.
Charges would be covered by a five-year pharmaceutical price regulation scheme (PPRS), agreed between the ABPI and the Westminster Government last November. It came into force in January.
The ABPI told the Belfast Telegraph: "Industry payments represent an agreement to fund the growth in the branded medicines bill by companies in the scheme, above 0% in 2014 and 2015, above 1.8% in 2016 and 2017 and above 1.9% in 2018.
"There is no cap or upper limit on industry growth repayments. A core objective in underwriting medicines expenditure is to see this lead to improved patient care, enabling appropriate increased access to branded medicines in all parts of the UK at a time of extreme financial pressure on the NHS."
It added: "The PPRS applies equally to all four UK nations." The SDLP is calling on Health Minister Edwin Poots to end Northern Ireland's postcode lottery on cancer drugs by allowing doctors across the province to prescribe them on the basis of need.
"For many people this is a matter of life and death, while others are running up crippling private medical bills. There is no excuse for delay," SDLP health spokesperson Fearghal McKinney MLA said.
"There is no additional cost involved, these are cancer drugs for free. This affects all branded medicines, not just cancer drugs. There is no reason not to do it.
"Edwin Poots said that last year £1.4m was spent in Northern Ireland on cancer medicines which are readily available in England but are restricted here.
"Assuming our incidence of cancer here is the same as England, the amount that would need to be spent on them is £7m. If that was to happen the industry would refund the additional £5.6m. It is as easy as that."
Up to now Mr Poots has argued he would need a special cancer drugs fund and this cannot be afforded. The minister has suggested a £3 prescription charge could support a £3m NI cancer drugs fund.
He is initiating a review of the current system and until a decision is made, cancer patients are being denied the drugs which could prolong life and would be provided if they were living in England. In some cases patients are paying up to £5,000 privately for a short course of treatment.
A Department of Health spokeswoman took issue with the ABPI's outline of the scheme. She argued: "The PPRS agreement does not give the health service of each country a guarantee that industry will absorb any growth in spend (as defined in the agreement) above the allowable growth rate in each country's health service. The agreement and 'guarantee' is on a UK basis."
Almost 40 pioneering drugs which are freely available in England are currently restricted in Northern Ireland on grounds of cost. New medicines for cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis and other conditions are also affected. Recent research shows that 13 cancer drugs that were freely available in England last year were never used here – and that another 18 were used less frequently.
Questions & answers
Q. What is the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme?
A. It provides a means for the pharmaceutical industry to make payments to the Government based on the growth of branded medicines.
Q. How is the rebate handed over to the State?
A. Payments are are based on UK-wide sales, and are paid quarterly by the industry to the Department for Health in London.
Q. How much is it worth to the taxpayer?
A. The first payment of £74m for January to March 2014 has been delivered and published. The second quarter’s payments have also been delivered but have not yet been published.
Q. How long does the PPRS scheme run for?
A. It will last for five years, from January 1, 2014 until the end of December 2018.
Q. Are all branded drugs available through the PPRS scheme?
A. The providers of a small number (7%) of branded medicines opted not to participate in the 2014 PPRS and instead to accept a 15% price cut. Other exclusions include exceptional procurements, such as national drugs stockpiles or pandemic preparations, and centrally supplied vaccines. Smaller companies with NHS sales less than £5m are also exempt from the scheme.
Q. Are Scotland and Wales availing of this scheme?
A. Yes, PPRS applies equally to all four UK nations.
Q. Is there a limit on how much the industry will hand over?
A. There is no ‘cap’ or upper limit on industry growth repayments.