The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) has started a judicial review against the DoH to clarify the legality of what it claims is paying GPs to prescribe certain drugs in place of other named medicines.
This move is illegal under European law and pharmaceutical companies are unable to offer such incentives, says the ABPI.
Most notably, primary care organisations have been urged to ensure that 69 per cent of statin scrips are for the generic drugs simvastatin or pravastatin, rather than the more expensive and more potent atorvastatin (Lipitor). For patients on low dose statins, switching is estimated to save the NHS up to £2 billion over five years.
Switching to cheaper proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), antihypertensives and antiplatelet drugs is also seen as a way to cut NHS costs, and the move was highlighted as the way forward in a recent report by the Office of Fair Trading.
A series of discussions about switching large number of patients to alternative treatments to save money have been held between the ABPI and the DoH since the practice has taken hold across the country.
But the ABPI is unhappy that the DoH has still not put in place a clause whereby patients would have to give informed consent to the switch.
A DoH spokesperson said: 'We will rigorously defend this legal challenge from the ABPI. The NHS could potentially save £84m if it switched to low cost generic statins.
'These generic drugs are safe, of good quality and just as effective, and used to treat many millions of patients worldwide. The purpose of the legal provisions now contested by ABPI is to control commercial activities not the work of public health organisations.
'We are talking here about achieving best value for money for the taxpayer and are backed by authoritative guidance from NICE. Cost-effective prescribing releases resources for more patients to receive treatment'
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