Drug prices out of whack

By Manolo B. Jara, The Manila Times, 23 October 2000

THE issue of unconscionably high prices of essential drugs simply refuses to die. While multinational drug companies continue to rake it in, as do their counterparts in the oil industry, the Filipinos have to bear the heavy burden of the rising cost of living due mainly to the unabated increase in the prices of petroleum products and the resulting jump in transport fares and power bills.

Now that the government is trying to solve the problem, the drug industry is crying foul and calling the move as anti-business and very irresponsible. Industry leaders insist that they are demonstrating the highest standard of business conduct to preserve their reputation and integrity.

But in doing so, they continue to hurt the public by selling their products at prices which Trade and Industry Secretary Mar Roxas describes as out of whack. He insists that multinational drug companies are eroding the wages of workers by pricing their products at unreasonable levels.

Take, for instance, Ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic also known as Ciprobay. In the Philippines, each tablet costs P48. In neighboring countries, its price is the equivalent of P3.54 per tablet.

An ordinary worker, who earns P250 daily, falls ill and the medicine prescribed to cure his ailment is Ciprobay. Usually, Roxas says, the worker is supposed to take two to three tablets a day for seven days for a total of 21 tablets.

At P48 per tablet, it will cost the worker P1,300 to complete the cycle. It will take the worker nearly seven days work to pay for one cycle of antibiotics. But if we import Ciprobay, the worker will pay only P99 (at P3.54 per tablet) for the entire prescription, Roxas argues.

There are many other examples, according to Roxas, in which ordinary Filipinos have to pay through the nose to buy needed medicines. Here are some of them: For asthmatics, the prescribed medicine is Ventolin, the brand name of Salbutamol. Local price is P295 as against P80 in other Asian countries.

Ponstan, the brand name for Mefenamic Acid, sells for P10.45 per 250 milligram-capsule in the Philippines. Real world price is P1.32. Isordil for those with heart conditions sells here at P7.40 per tablet compared to 22 centavos abroad. For hypertension, P28 per five-milligram tablet, P4 imported. Lasix for edema, P7.40 here, 43 centavos imported.

It is for this reason, Roxas says, that the government is determined to import basic drugs, initially from India, to directly compete with their expensive foreign and local brands sold in the country. For starters, the DTI and the Department of Health have set up a joint Task Force on Pharmaceutical Concerns to import at least 14 of the most frequently prescribed drugs through DTI’s trading arm, the Philippine International Trading Corp.

The imported drugs, Roxas continues, will be distributed to four government hospitals, including the Philippine General Hospital in Manila and the East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City, for easier monitoring through physicians’ prescriptions.

Total import costs alone for these drugs is P1.5 million—a big reduction from the P5 million which the Health department has allocated for the project. And Roxas assures that the imported medicines have already passed the rigid tests conducted by the Bureau of Food and Drugs.

Besides, he says, the importation will be in consonance with the standards of the World Trade Organization as well as the Intellectual Property Rights. As he puts it, we are not altering, we are purchasing off-patent, branded products.

Indeed, even in the United States, the home of the multinational companies sited here, the US Congress recently passed a bill that allows parallel importation of basic drugs from neighboring countries like Canada and Mexico similar to what the Philippines is doing. The main reason for passing the bill is the high cost of these medicines.

What the government is doing is a wake-up call and a warning to the drug companies to heed the mounting calls for lower prices, especially in these hard and trying times.