2021 – UK market access prospects

With a new year comes the opportunity to think ahead for the market access landscape for the coming year. 2020 was a big year for market access initiatives in the UK, many of which are only just starting, and their impact will come through in 2021 and beyond. Looking back at key market access news from the last year, Leela Barham takes stock of what the next twelve months could bring for UK market access.

Whilst regulatory approval is only a starting step on market access, the UK has made steps to put the UK on the priority list for companies seeking marketing authorisation. The UK joined two initiatives in October 2020 that should bear fruit in the future: Project Orbis and the Access Consortium.

Project Orbis is coordinated by the US Food and Drug Administration and includes Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Singapore and Brazil and focuses upon review and approval of cancer treatments that offer promise. The Access Consortium includes some of the same players – Australia, Canada, Switzerland and Singapore – and looks more broadly at securing patient access to high-quality, safe and effective medicines. The ABPI has seen these as another way to help the UK deliver faster access.

The promise of faster market access 

Announced in December 2020, and beginning from 1 January 2021, the new licensing and access pathway (ILAP) at the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory products Agency (MHRA) offers the chance – for a fee – for faster access for medicines that meet the criteria for the scheme. Criteria include that the condition is life-threatening or seriously debilitating or there is a significant patient or public health need.

“The UK has sought to provide incentives for development of new antibiotics by offering a volume neutral deal, also termed a Netflix approach”

Additional criteria include being an innovative medicine, such as an advanced therapy medicinal product (ATMP), significant new indication or a treatment for a rare disease or other special populations such as neonates, children, elderly and pregnant women and aligning with priorities of the UK, be that from the chief medical officer, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) or those from the UK’s Life Sciences Sector Deal.

What is probably most exciting about ILAP is the bringing together of expertise from the MHRA with that of key HTA agencies NICE and the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC), as well as NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE&I), and, of course, patients too. It’s the first time that all these agencies are working together (much else draws on what has been available for some time; early advice and in parallel between NICE and MHRA).

2021 will reveal just how the ILPA will be operationalised and whichever product will be the first to go through the Innovation Passport stage – a new designation as part of ILAP – will help everyone understand how the criteria for the passport will apply in practice. It’ll also reveal just what the Target Development Profile (TDP) living document will cover and how it can evolve over time. This rolling review features is also another new element on offer under ILAP.

The Netflix approach

Antibiotics are vital to modern health care, yet there have been warnings for years that the economics at play simply don’t incentivise the development of new antibiotics; new antibiotics should be kept in reserve to limit antibiotic resistance and aren’t likely to be used in large volumes. The lack of new antibiotics is a problem when the existing antibiotics stop working.

The UK has sought to provide incentives for development of new antibiotics by offering a volume neutral deal, also termed a Netflix approach. In June 2017, NICE and NHSE&I launched a novel payment approach; offering up to £100 million to companies developing and marketing novel antibiotics based on the value of their products, regardless of volume sold.

2021 will see NICE trialling their adapted HTA approach for assessing the value of new antimicrobials. This will not only interest companies researching and developing new antibiotics, but other countries who will want to see whether the UK approach could work for them too. Where NICE leads, others will want to learn and adapt from.

Key access commitment due to report in VPAS 

The UK has a unique approach to managing the pricing of branded medicines through the 2019 Voluntary Scheme for Branded Medicines Pricing and Access (VPAS). The deal balances affordability commitments that benefit the UK government – where NHS spend on branded medicines cannot go above a pre-agreed level – with access commitments to industry.

A key commitment in the deal is to reach the upper quartile of uptake in relation to comparator countries for the five highest health gain categories of treatments. A timeline is set for hitting this too; it should be met during the first half of the scheme. That makes it a target for June 2021. Whilst there isn’t a timeline against it, there is also a commitment for the Department of Health and Social Care, NHSE&I and the industry association, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) to better understand national and international variation on uptake and where that is unwarranted.

Realistically it’s seems unlikely that the timetable for the upper quartile target can be met. That’s because so far, based on desk research, there doesn’t appear to be a public list of the five highest health gains, and meeting minutes from operational reviews of the scheme suggest discussions have faced difficulties in agreeing them. It’s difficult both from a methods side (which countries, which treatments, etc) as well as data and time; COVID-19 has been a higher priority for many staffers involved. Expect a delay that may even see this reporting in 2022.

More change at NICE

2020 saw NICE consult on a variety of changes and set out plans on cross-cutting market access issues.

NICE started 2020 with the January publication of their principles; essentially a framework for how the agency goes about its work – from working on national priority areas through to publishing their work and updating as necessary.

NICE followed these in March 2020 with their final statement of intent on increasing the use of health and social data in their guidance. The statement covers one of the buzz phrases in market access – ‘real world data’ – and signals a greater willingness for NICE to consider its use in their work. The agency will keep working on how this will be implemented during 2021; this can only help, as much in the statement is aspirational and there’s not a great deal of clarity on exactly what NICE will accept, or not, as the case may be.

In June 2020, NICE let industry know about their changes to the process used in Single Technology Appraisals (STAs), moving from technical reports from Evidence Review Groups (ERGs) – independent academics – to present issues. That allows for easier engagement but also offers companies a right to reply to ERGs. With this change applied from STAs starting in May 2020, 2021 should see more companies seeing the difference. Efficiencies are the gain NICE hopes to see and that ties in with commitments to make NICE faster set out in VPAS. NICE hadn’t yet reached their targets according to metrics set out in July 2020 relating to appraisals up to Q1 of 2020, so 2021 could see NICE really getting to grips with getting faster.

NICE kept up the pace of consulting in 2020, setting out proposals to change the selection of treatments for evaluation in October 2020. The aim is for simplification as well as confirming promises made in VPAS that NICE will appraise all new active substances and significant new indications.

Arguably the most important consultation from NICE in 2020 was a six week consultation on the evidence and considerations for changing their methods, including those used in Technology Appraisals. According to experts at market access consulting firm, Bresmed, the changes being tabled that are likely to have a high potential impact include the removal of End of Life criteria to be replaced with a severity modifier, a change to the discount rate from 3.5% to 1.5% as well as greater emphasis on real world data.

Yet there is still more work for NICE and all stakeholders who will want to shape the final changes, as the agency plans to consult for another six weeks from February to March 2021 as well as consult with stakeholders on the draft programme manual which will encompass the reformed methods in June to July 2021.

The final changes won’t bear fruit for a little more time; implementation will be for treatments assessed from October 2021. This will also be when changes to selection processes will be implemented too. Companies are going to need to keep refining their inputs to NICE as they consult as well as run scenarios and review strategies to make the most of any opportunities for treatments that will be reviewed under the new approach.

Less clear is the ‘what and when’ of changes to the criteria that determine which treatments are reviewed through the NICE Highly Specialised Technologies (HST) programme, another area that NICE is reviewing. This is of interest as it offers a wider set of value components to be considered, as well as more flexibility on the cost-effectiveness threshold, for ultra-orphan treatments.

It’s likely NICE will set out details on this review during 2021. However, anyone hoping that the door will be open for the rarer end of common treatments could be disappointed as NICE say that they want to make the criteria clearer and more specific but not increase, or decrease, the number of HST topics. NICE is funded to do three a year.

NICE, building on their international links, was one of seven agencies who took part in the first ever World Evidence-based Healthcare Day in October 2020. We can expect to hear more on the global initiative in 2021. It’s also likely that their 2020 agreement with Colombia’s IETS will start to bear fruit, shaping how HTA is done in Colombia.

Pulling all this work together will also be a test of NICE’s 2020 appointed chief executive Gillian Leng. She’ll likely bring a steady hand to the consultation and the next steps, reflecting her over 13 years at NICE. 2021 could see big changes that should provide opportunities for faster NICE appraisals but as ever, the devil is in the detail and the full impact won’t be possible to see until a number of treatments have gone through the new methods and processes.

Medicines and Medical Devices Bill and a new Innovative Medicines Fund 

The Medicines and Medical Devices Bill is still going through Parliament and should become law in 2021. It’s part of the legal homework necessitated by the UK leaving the EU and covers a range of regulatory issues.

The importance of the Bill from a market access perspective is not however just about regulation but has also seen discussion of the establishment of an Innovative Medicines Fund. Whilst a proposed amendment to the Bill on establishing such a fund was withdrawn during December 2020, the discussions in the House of Lords suggested that NHSE&I and NICE will be engaging during the first quarter of 2021 on the fund.

The fund will replace the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF), and widen the treatments that can be funded on an interim basis. The CDF as it has been run from 2016 helps generate evidence for treatments that have the potential to be cost-effective but face uncertainties that can be addressed through evidence generation. It’s proved to be a key enabler for market access for cancer drugs and many – although not all – drugs funded under the CDF have gone on to go into routine commissioning, although often with a hefty price cut. Just how the Innovative Medicines Fund will work is something to watch as it may provide new access opportunities previously not available.

More change ahead in 2022

There will be yet more change in the future with major shakeups expected in the way NHS England is structured, with the potential to abolish Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) and Integrated Care Systems to be put on a statutory footing in 2022. That means much planning could be on the cards and, as ever, a need for the pharma industry to keep up to date and ensure that they’re engaging with those that matter for access on a local level.

About the author

leela barhamLeela Barham is researcher and writer who has worked with all stakeholders across the health care system, both in the UK and internationally, on the economics of the pharmaceutical industry. Leela worked as an advisor to the Department of Health and Social Care on the 2019 Voluntary Scheme for Branded Medicines Pricing and Access (VPAS).