May 6, 2003
A year after Britain implemented an innovative scheme to provide expensive multiple sclerosis drugs under the National Health Service, inequalities in access to the drugs remain, campaigners said on Tuesday.
According to the Multiple Sclerosis Society, more than 1,000 people with the disease have still not been assessed for treatment with beta interferons or glatiramer acetate exactly 12 months after the government introduced the groundbreaking scheme.
"Though the scheme is working well in many parts of the UK, people in a number of areas have not yet been given a date for assessment let alone begun treatment," said Mike O'Donovan, the society's chief executive.
"So the notorious postcode lottery lives on. It now seems very unlikely the Department's target of clearing the backlog of qualifying patients by November will be met."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health acknowledged that the scheme has been slower than the government wanted, but told Reuters Health that things are now speeding up.
"We do still think that the November 2003 target will be met," she said.
Beta interferon and glatiramer acetate are used in many countries to slow disease progression, but in Britain most patients had been denied the drugs following controversy over their long-term effectiveness and cost.
Under the scheme, the government will continue payments for the drugs if they prove effective. If not, payments to pharmaceutical firms will be reduced on a sliding scale.
But to get the drugs, patients need to be called up by specialist neurologists for assessment to confirm that they meet the criteria for therapy and are likely to benefit from the treatment.
The MS Society said nearly one in five of the 7,500 to 9,000 people estimated to be eligible for the drugs are still waiting for an assessment date.
The scheme has been running into trouble in assessment centres in Ipswich, Leeds, North Staffordshire, Southend, Swansea, Truro and one in London, according to the society.
"Many people have been waiting for treatment for several years and are
deeply worried that their symptoms may progress too far for them to qualify,"
O'Donovan said. "To make matters even worse, they see others already on
the drugs benefiting from fewer and less severe MS attacks."
© 2003 Reuters Ltd.