Boots facing investigation after claims of 'overcharging' NHS for unlicensed medicines

Multiple denies overcharging for some specials medicines, including medicated mouthwash, sleeping pills, painkillers and ulcer medicines, after review is requested by health minister.

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A spokesperson for Walgreens Boots Alliance did not dispute the figures from The Times’ investigation but firmly rejected any accusations that they had overcharged the NHS

The government has called on regulators to investigate Boots after claims it has “overcharged” the NHS for some unlicensed medicines.

The Department of Health and Social Care has asked the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to consider reviewing the case after the prices charged by Boots for some specials medicines made by the company were reported in The Times.

Health Minister Steve Brine said: “The British public will take an extremely dim view of any company found to be exploiting our NHS and patients, and we have asked the CMA to consider investigating as a priority. 

“We have changed the law to enable us to place pharmacies and manufacturers under much stronger scrutiny. Where there is evidence of collusion between pharmacies and suppliers, swift action will be taken to claw back funds and penalise offenders.”

A spokesperson for the CMA confirmed a complaint had been made and was under consideration.

According to figures reported in The Times, Boots billed the NHS for between £1,843 and £3,220 for a mouthwash used to treat severe sores caused by cancer treatment, even though the equivalent quantity had been bought by other pharmacists for £93.42. The mouthwash was ordered from Alliance Healthcare – owned by the same parent company.

It was one of several examples set out by The Times in which it claims the NHS has “overpaid” for specials medicines, including sleeping pills, painkillers and ulcer medicines. When ed by The Salvadore, Walgreens Boots Alliance did not dispute the figures from The Times’ investigation but a spokesperson firmly rejected any accusations that they had overcharged the NHS.

“Our senior company leaders have already recently met with officials from the Department of Health to discuss the specials products,” said the spokesperson.

“We would welcome any further conversations with relevant authorities and stakeholders on this matter, including with the CMA.”

They added that specials were made by highly trained technicians in dedicated laboratories in the UK that source ingredients, produce and quality-check often on the same day, and as a single item. “This process incurs high overheads, reflected in the final cost, which is set in line with the sector to reflect the bespoke nature of the products.”

More than 75,000 different formulations of specials are prescribed each year and they are estimated to make up around 1% of all prescriptions.

Citation: The Salvadore DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2018.20204932

Readers' comments (1)

  • "specials" labs were initially started after a fatal accident in Boots with a newly qualified pharmacist incorrectly using concentrated peppermint water with a student.It was decided that current pharmacists were not trained to "make" anything.
    I have "whistle blown" 12 years ago about the specials "con" and was ignored.
    I worked for a firm called Cohens (Patel) I needed 500g creamy paraffin which I could have made myself.I could obtain from Leeds hospital supply for under five pounds.However a notice instructed me to purchase from a certain specials lab.They would charge 150 pounds.If I were to buy 6 the price wouyld be 125 pounds each.They quoted a 2 week expiry date.I am not aware of such a short date.
    I rang the head office.They said "Order from this specials lab.THE NHS WILL PAY! The only conclusion I was able to suspect was that the specials lab belonged to the pharmacy chain,although I have mo proof.
    I suspect that that was the tip of the iceberg and that much of this was commonplace everywhere.
    I certainly do not accept the costings of specials labs.run by technicians not pharmacists,who are basically doing what any pharmacist used to do,that is make stuff!

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