Roche Seeks to Avoid Cancer-Drug Drama With U.K. Price Talks

  • Swiss drugmaker open to money-back guarantees for NHS
  • Revamped fund to pay for newest treatments begins in July

Roche Holding AG said it’s open to discussing ways to set prices for tumor-fighting treatments in the U.K., signaling that the world’s biggest maker of cancer drugs will seek to avoid a repeat of last year’s heated dispute with authorities over the cost of two key medicines.

The U.K., where cancer survival rates lag those of other developed countries, is in a unique position because its state-run National Health Service covers 54 million people in England. Under the Cancer Drugs Fund, which pays for therapies that aren’t deemed cost-effective enough for routine NHS use, the government put technology in place that may have the ability to track how patients are doing on treatment and help guide payment policy.

“We think the U.K. can really lead this,” Richard Erwin, Roche’s U.K. general manager, said in an interview Friday. “It won’t happen quickly but it’s something both ourselves and, I think, the NHS are committed to finding solutions on.”

Roche is open to giving some money back to the NHS if patients don’t respond well to a treatment, or to limit payments for those needing to take the drug long-term to keep the cancer at bay, Erwin said. The U.K. could follow the example of Italy, where Roche is testing money-back-guarantees and other cancer-drug pricing models with the Italian Medicines Agency.

‘Stupid’ Decision

The Basel, Switzerland-based drugmaker quarreled with the NHS last year over its decision to stop paying for some cancer medicines including Roche’s Kadcyla and Avastin. Roche Chief Executive Officer Severin Schwan called the choice “stupid” and “completely arbitrary” because it focuses on the price of medicines rather than potential savings to the overall health system. Kadcyla was later covered by the drug fund for a type of breast cancer, though it’s still not backed for routine NHS use.

The Cancer Drugs Fund in its existing form ended in March, and the new version begins in July with a 340 million-pound ($485 million) annual budget. That’s in addition to the 1.2 billion pounds the NHS spends on cancer drugs each year. NICE is set to review 37 medicines available through the fund and decide whether they offer the NHS value for money. Because of their high prices, new cancer therapies often fail to win NICE’s backing unless manufacturers offer discounts.

While changes have been made to speed NICE’s decisions and get drugs to patients more quickly, more needs to be done to keep medicines available under the new version of the fund, Erwin said. Avastin is still not available for NHS patients with bowel cancer, he said, though it’s routinely used for that disease in the rest of the developed world. The medicine brought in about $7 billion in global sales last year, making it Roche’s second-best selling therapy.

“We are calling for a discussion,” he said. “We are willing to collaborate to find any way to retain access to these medicines in the U.K.”

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