Last week, a pharmaceutical company was accused of intentionally inflating the price of one of its medicines by 2,000%[1]. Does this kind of news seem like déjà vu? Most probably, because escalating medicine prices are getting more and more coverage.

Doctor examining patient's eye.

Here, one company acted alone. In other cases, it can be the result of a cartel between two of them. One of the most talked-about examples over the recent years is the one operated by Roche and Novartis. My colleague Luisa has clearly explained in a previous blog here the ins and outs of how this case started and how we got involved at Altroconsumo.

In a nutshell, the two companies plotted to favour an unaffordable medicine (Lucentis), used to treat an eye disease common among the elderly, over another much cheaper and equally efficient medicine (Avastin). As a result, the national health system is paying a high price. In the case of Avastin and Lucentis, the Italian National Health Service has sustained extra expenses estimated at over 1.2 billion euros.

The cartel’s earnings must go back to where they come from.

How long will we keep hearing this kind of shocking news?

A glimmer of hope

In late January, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) recognised the anticompetitive practices of Roche and Novartis, which the Italian Competition Authority has been denouncing since 2013.

‘Court of Justice of the European Union’

Court of Justice of the European Union

Roche and Novartis met their goal thanks to a series of tactics including: raising safety concerns over the cheaper drug, Avastin, among eye doctors, minimising independent studies which showed both drugs worked equally well, and lobbying against the reimbursement of Avastin.

The ECJ’s landmark decision echoes a principle Altroconsumo believes in and fights for: big pharma’s commercial strategies or agreements on the market cannot jeopardise consumers’ health, disease treatment, public health system sustainability.

Paying the price

Altroconsumo has been pivotal in bringing the Avastin/Lucentis case to light and to court. We’ll keep doing so until consumers in Italy and beyond can afford the medicines that can improve their lives. But to do so, we need support both at national and European levels.

The two companies plotted to favour an unaffordable medicine over another much cheaper and equally efficient one

Pharma companies who deliberately undermine consumers’ access to essential medicines and put their profits before people’s health should not get away with it. That’s why Italy’s highest administrative court (Consiglio di Stato) must hasten to confirm the €180 million fine that the Italian Competition Authority has imposed on Roche and Novartis.

At the European level, we hope the ECJ’s decision will encourage the competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager to keep investigating anticompetitive behaviours which affect consumers’ access to medicines.

The cartel’s earnings must go back to where they come from. As taxpayers’ money has been drained by this cartel, the Italian government should seek redress from Roche and Novartis. The compensation could then be invested into public healthcare services that work better for consumers.

This was a guest blog by Ivo Tarantino, Head of Public Affairs & Media Relations at Italian consumer organisation Altroconsumo.

[1] Danish competition watchdog ruled that distributor CD Pharma unfairly boosted the price of a childbirth medicine. More info here

Posted by Ivo Tarantino