A drug company has been hit with fines of more than £100m by the UK’s competition watchdog for hiking vital drug prices of a crucial thyroid medicine.
Advanz pushed up the price of thyroid tablet packs by more than tenfold from £20 in 2009 to £248 in 2017 - making the drug unaffordable for the NHS.
The Competition and Markets Authority’s latest fine is intended to send "a clear message" to the pharmaceutical sector that breaking the law and hiking prices unnecessarily would not be tolerated.
It said an investigation had shown from 2009 until 2017, Advanz charged excessive and unfair prices for supplying liothyronine tablets, which are used to treat thyroid hormone deficiency.
Eventually the drug was placed on the NHS "drop list" in July 2015, meaning patients had to either have their current treatment stopped or start paying for the tablets themselves.
The fine applies to Advanz, as well as two private equity firms, HgCapital and Cinven.
"They achieved this because liothyronine tablets were among a number of drugs that, although genericised, faced limited or no competition and therefore could sustain repeated price increases," the CMA said in a statement.
Advanz was hit with a £40.9m fine, while HgCapital and Cinven were fined £8.6m and £51.9m respectively.
The two latter companies are private equity firms which were previously owners of the businesses and now form part of Advanz.
Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said the company’s actions to increase prices came at "a huge cost to the NHS and ultimately to UK taxpayers."
"This wasn’t all – it also meant that people dealing with depression and extreme fatigue, as a result of their thyroid conditions, were told they could not continue to receive the most effective treatment for them due to its increased price," he added.
Mr Coscelli added: "Advanz’s strategy exploited a loophole enabling it to reap much higher profits. This fine of over £100 million, and our work in the pharma sector to date, sends a clear message that breaking the law has serious consequences."
A spokesman for Advanz said: "Advanz Pharma takes competition law very seriously. We utterly disagree with the CMA’s decision on the pricing of liothyronine tablets and will be appealing."
"In addition, any liothyronine price increases were all pre-notified to, and agreed in advance and in writing by, the Department of Health and Social Care."
The Advanz case follows a £260m fine from the CMA for drug companies which inflated "life-saving" hydrocortisone tablets - which had its price hiked over 10,000 per cent.
Hydrocortisone pills are used by tens of thousands of people across the UK to treat adrenal insufficiency, which includes life-threatening conditions such as Addison’s disease.
Investigations by the CMA found the amount the NHS had to pay for a single pack of 10mg tablets rose from 70p in April 2008 to £88 by March 2016.