Psychiatrists and patients in Belgium are up in arms over the decision by British pharmaceutical company Essential Pharma to increase the price of a drug used for the treatment of people with bipolar disorder.
The company is the sole producer of the much-prescribed drug Camcolit, which has increased threefold in price. The price increase comes at a moment when the only real competitor to the drug is off the market.
“This decision is scandalous,” commented Dr. Kirsten Catthoor, a psychiatrist at the Stuivenberg hospital in Antwerp and secretary of the Flemish association of psychiatrists. “At least have the decency to spare people who are seriously ill.”
Bipolar disorder is a mental illness, once known as manic-depressive disorder, in which patients suffer cyclical psychological highs and lows which can seriously disrupt their lives and relationships, and at low points can lead to suicide attempts which in many cases are successful.
Essential Pharma did not invent Camcolit, but bought the rights from its inventors. The drug is based on lithium carbonate, which has long been used in the treatment of the disorder.
The tripling in price coincides with production problems by the makers of another lithium product, Maniprex, which was commonly used in Belgium. Critics argue Essential Pharma are profiting from the problems with Maniprex to force patients to pay more.
To make matters worse, Camcolit is not reimbursed by health insurers in Belgium, whereas Maniprex was. Doctors point out that bipolar patients are often low earners as a result of their condition, and the price increase is making their situation worse. Above all, they see no reason for any price increase at all, let alone one that takes the cost of a packet of pills from 9.44 euros last month to 27 euros now.
“Essential Pharma has a monopoly, and is profiting by driving up its prices,” commented Martine Van Hecke of consumer organisation Test-Achats. “The firm is specialised in buying up older, cheaper medication, forcing a monopoly and pushing up prices – a very nasty business model.” The organisation has lodged a complaint with federal health minister Maggie De Block.