The rising tide of protest over the refusal by the NHS to provide expensive drugs for cancer and other conditions is being funded by the pharmaceutical industry, an investigation by The Independent has revealed.
Patient groups that have been among the most vocal in spearheading attacks on the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) over decisions to restrict access to drugs on the NHS depend for up to half of their income on drug companies, but details are often undisclosed.
Protests have been launched by charities including the National Kidney Federation, the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance, the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, Beating Bowel Cancer, the Royal National Institute for the Blind and the Alzheimer's Society. All of these charities received sums of up to six figures from drug companies in 2007.
The extent of the drug companies' support for the smaller charities has led to criticisms that supposedly grassroots patient organisations are puppets of the pharmaceutical industry, being used to bludgeon Nice into making the drugs available on the health service.
Yet none of the charities named has criticised the high prices charged by the pharmaceutical companies for their products in their recent campaigns.
The National Kidney Federation (NKF) accused Nice of taking a "barbaric, damaging and unacceptable" decision when it turned down four kidney cancer drugs for NHS use this year and pledged to campaign against the decision. It did not criticise the cost of the drugs, at more than £3,000 for a 30-tablet pack. Half the NKF's £300,000 budget comes from the pharmaceutical and renal industries.
The Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance (Arma) organised a protest letter from 10 professors of rheumatology, published in The Sunday Times last month, over a recent Nice decision to restrict access to arthritis drugs. The letter made no mention of the cost of the drugs but Ros Meek, chief executive, admitted that "half, or more" of the charity's £147,000 income came from the drug industry.
The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society described the same Nice decision as "another nail in the coffin" for arthritis treatment and launched an appeal against it this week, with Arma and three drug companies. The society received 49 per cent of its £300,000 budget from the pharmaceutical industry in 2005-06, reducing to 26 per cent of its £472,000 budget in 2006-07.
We have heard physicians and leaders of not-for-profit organizations funded by pharmaceutical companies and other commercial health care organizations protest again and again that their activities and decisions are uninfluenced by the source of their money. For example, we recently posted about the President of the US American College of Cardiology who revealed that this medical society receives 38% of its funds from the pharmaceutical industry, but has "firewalls" that prevent this sum of money from having any effect on how the organization operates. Yet, as the saying goes, "he who pays the piper calls the tune."
The current example, from the UK, highlights how organizations that get substantial commercial support never seem to manage to criticize the policies or actions of those who provide the support. One would think a charity devoted to the interests of patients with a particular disease might protest when drug companies charge outrageous prices for treatments for that disease, but as noted above, not one of the charities listed above did so.
So in the absence of transparency, accountability, and clear and enforced codes of ethics, those with health care goods or services to sell are more than happy to plow substantial funds into non-profit, "grassroots" organizations with the not unreasonable hope that such organizations will then promote the requisite marketing or policy agenda. Thus these supposed "grassroots" organizations are really astroturf, and allow their sponsors to engage in stealth health policy advocacy.
Hat tip to Ed Silverman on PharmaLot.