Krusada: Cheaper medicines

By Nathalie Blanco, Multimedia Producer, Krusada

Posted at Jul 28 2012 12:06 AM | Updated as of Jul 28 2012 08:10 AM

In this episode of Krusada, broadcast journalist Alvin Elchico examines how the government has implemented the pro-poor Cheaper Medicines Act and if it has been beneficial to Filipinos since its ratification four years ago.

Alvin Elchico leads discussion on Cheaper Medicines Act. Photo courtesy of Jaq Santos

Four years prior to the implementation of the Cheaper Medicines Act (Republic Act 9502), the World Health Organization (WHO) said that almost eight out of ten Filipinos have economic difficulties to purchase their medication.

The said act was deemed a ray of hope for the Filipino poor. However, since it was passed into law in 2008, many consumer groups have called the act "useless," noting that prices of some medicines have not yet gone down.

Are several provisions in the Cheaper Medicines Act defective? Has the government efficiently implemented the law that is supposed to aid the poor?

“Filipinos sacrifice a lot of things when they are sick. If they find it hard to buy food for their families, how much more if they are ill?” Alvin asked.

Case studies

Maris Escototo, 21-year-old call center agent, suffers from lupus nephritis, a kidney disease that weakens the immune system. There is no cure for it, but in order to curb further complications, she has to keep up with treatment. She is already suffering from hypertension, high blood cholesterol and gout.

Escototo revealed that her illness worsened because her family could not afford her maintenance medication. One of her prescriptions is azathioprine, an immunosuppressant drug that she needs to take thrice per day. It costs at least P40 per piece.

Not being a family of means, Escototo and her parents sacrifice their meagre income, including their food budget, to provide for her medical treatment. Battling her illness means she has to undergo dialysis twice per week and pay for medicines amounting to P11,000 every month.

“We prioritize her medicine over our stomachs.We could refrain from spending for our food just to provide for her treatment,” Escototo’s mother said.

Bonifacio Carmona and his family have almost the same problem as Escototo. Carmona could not afford his maintenance medicines as well, complicating his condition.

Carmona, 54 years old, has been working as a cook at the Philippine Heart Center for 15 years now. The hospital allows him free check-ups and medical allowance worth P5,000 annually. But the cost of medicine is too high, and the allowance is not enough to pay for his hypertension and high blood cholesterol medication.

Despite the possible ramifications of not following the doctor’s prescriptions such as stroke or heart attack, Carmona still prioritizes his family over his health. His P10,000 salary is fully budgeted for the household’s needs.

Cheaper Medicine Act: ineffective?

Even before the Cheaper Medicine Act was implemented, the Philippines was second to Japan with the most expensive medicines in the market. R.A. 9502 seeks to alleviate the country’s overwhelming problem on the public’s access to affordable healthcare.

Enrique Tayag of Department of Health defends Cheaper Medicines Act.  Photo courtesy of Jaq Santos

According to Enrique Tayag, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health (DOH), prices of more than 200 medicines have already been reduced.

However, the Consumer’s Action for Empowerment, a non-government organization, says that “cheaper” does not mean “affordable”. Eleanor Nolasco, the NGO’s spokesperson said that there are still loopholes that are yet to be amended.

“The basis for lowering the prices of medicines is innovator brands, branded medicines. The scope is limited. It also did not break the monopoly of big companies,” said Nolasco.

The Pharmaceutical Association of the Philippines (PHAP) also believes that the law is not effective.

“Even though prices of 200 products may reduce by almost 50%, the prices are not low enough for people who have no money in their pockets,”said Rainer Gloor, Executive Director of PHAP.

On the other hand, Tayag says that reducing prices is not an easy task.

“If you don’t have a basis for lowering the price, they would pull out from our country. It’s a balancing act. If I’m manufacturing the medicines and you’re asking me to put a price tag that is below my expenses, I would just sell it to another country,” he asserted.

Recommended actions

If the law is seen by many as ineffective, what should be done to provide affordable healthcare for the Filipino people? What kind of reform is needed?

For Senator Manny Villar, Chairman of the Quality and Affordable Medicine Oversight Committee, a drug price regulatory board should be established.

Conversely, Tayag believes that such is not a necessary course of action, because in the existing law, the President has the power to set the price for any medicine upon the recommendation of the Secretary under certain conditions.

Looking at the bigger picture, Gloor has another proposal in mind.

“Eliminate the Value Added Tax (VAT) on healthcare. Not just on medicine, the whole healthcare sector. I think that will be the greatest gift and legacy you could give to the Filipino people,” he said.

Air date: July 5, 2012