MP angered by MS drug ruling

PA News Centre, 27 June 2000

A Liberal Democrat MP today spoke of his anger over a "devastating" provisional ruling to stop paying for an effective treatment for multiple sclerosis.

Steven Webb (Northavon) said last week's leak revealing that the drug beta interferon should not be made available on the NHS made him "genuinely angry".

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), which is charged with evaluating the effectiveness and value-for-money of new drugs, made a provisional decision that beta interferon should not be prescribed on the NHS.

The ruling is a huge blow to thousands of MS patients on waiting lists for the treatment.

Mr Webb, Liberal Democrat Social Security spokesman, said the plans were "particularly devastating" for sufferers not getting the drug in the future.

During a short debate on the funding of the drug on the NHS Mr Webb said beta interferon could slow down the progression of MS's devastating relapses and "make a very real and substantial change" to a sufferer's quality of life.

He told MPs sitting in Westminster Hall, the parallel Commons chamber, that there was "no viable alternative" to the drug, which was prescribed to one in eight sufferers in Europe compared to one in 30 in the UK.

"Is the rest of Europe wrong or is it that we are wrong?" he asked.

Beta interferon is effective in helping people with "relapsing remitting" MS, where victims suffer repeated bouts of the condition, often increasing in severity, which can leave them severely disabled.

But the drug is expensive, costing about £10,000 a year for each patient. Mr Webb spoke of the benefits of the drug to society as a whole and said the "cost consideration" of prescribing the drug was "being viewed very narrowly.

"NICE is only getting a partial picture," he added.

"The fundamental question is what should NICE take account of. I am concerned it is taking account of things which are not its legitimate concern."

He asked if the Government was "trying to palm off very difficult decisions on to effectively a quango instead of owning those decisions" and called for reassurance that clinical judgements are made by clinicians.

Referring to the substantially cheaper cost of the drug in the United States, he questioned whether the Government was "putting enough pressure" on drug companies in bringing the price of the drug down.

Health Minister of State John Denham (Southampton Itchen) said the leak was "not one on which the Government intends to comment at this stage".

He expressed "great sympathy" for the patients and their families who suffer from MS which has no cure and affects 85,000 people in the UK.

The long term clinical significance of beta interferon was still uncertain and the Government did not know as much as "it would like" about the drug, which was only licensed in 1995.

Mr Denham said 'postcode rationing' of treatment was an "unfair situation and we were determined to tackle it. NICE was set up to ... remove inconsistent and unacceptable variations in care."