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Competition watchdog looking into antibiotic price hikes

Pharmacy News

Competition watchdog looking into antibiotic price hikes

The Government’s competition watchdog has said it is “working to establish the facts” around what is behind rapidly rising prices for commonly prescribed antibiotics.

As pharmacists raise concerns about antibiotic shortages and price hikes far in excess of current Drug Tariff reimbursement rates during the ongoing strep A outbreak, a spokesperson for the Competition and Markets Authority commented: “People have got real concerns about the price of antibiotics used to treat Strep A, and we want companies to be clear about their obligations under the law.

“There should be no doubt that it is illegal for a dominant company to charge excessive prices, or for any companies to collude to drive up prices.

“We are working to establish the facts of what is currently happening in the market and welcome new information as part of our work.”

They said the CMA is “ready to take action if there is evidence of anti-competitive behaviour that breaks the law” – something wholesalers strongly deny, arguing that they are being forced to raise their prices due to an unanticipated spike in demand.

The CMA statement comes a day after the Department of Health and Social Care added amoxicillin, cefalexin, Penicillin V and azithromycin oral suspension to its list of drugs that “cannot be exported from the UK or hoarded because they are needed for UK patients”.

Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said: “Pharmacies across the country are reporting that they are struggling to get stock. There were some price hikes on Thursday but there was a big backlash and the wholesalers reduced their prices.

“The problem that we have at the moment is that the supply is just not there so you can’t order it. When the antibiotics have become available they are still at higher prices.”

One pharmacist told LBC Radio this week that the cost of a bottle of one oral suspension antibiotic product had “gone from £1 to £14.99” in the space of 10 days.

The Healthcare Distribution Association, which represents pharmaceutical wholesalers, says the higher prices being borne by pharmacies reflect wider market fluctuations.

HDA chief Martin Sawer said: “No one’s making excess money out of this because we’re being charged more. We have to pass on the prices to pharmacies because that’s the only way we can afford to supply them.

“Pricing will reflect the prices that are charged by the manufacturers. The increased price starts higher up the supply chain.”

Recent DHSC guidance advising prescribers to have a lower threshold for prescribing antibiotics due to the strep A outbreak delivered a “shock” to an unprepared system, Mr Sawer said.

A DHSC spokesperson said: “There is no supplier shortage of antibiotics available to treat Strep A.

“We are working urgently with manufacturers and wholesalers to explore what can be done to expedite deliveries and bring forward stock they have to help ensure it gets to where it’s needed, to meet demand as quickly as possible and support access to these vital medicines.”

“Prices of generic medicines can fluctuate but no-one should use this as an opportunity to exploit the NHS.

“Where companies are found to be abusing their dominant position by charging excessive and unfair prices, the CMA can take action against businesses.”

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said: “Despite the prime minister’s assurance that there are no shortages, some parents are having to go from pharmacy to pharmacy to find the antibiotics they need. Rishi Sunak should be honest with the public and get a grip on this.”

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