By CARMELA FONBUENA
abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak, with a report from AFP
Congress on Tuesday passed a law aimed at lowering the price of medicines as part of a series of measures intended to alleviate the rising price of food and other costs.
President Gloria Arroyo was "very pleased that this long-awaited bill has finally been passed," calling it a "major milestone," which comes just in time for Labour Day on May 1.
Senator Mar Roxas, one of the proponents of the "Universally Accessible Cheaper and Quality Medicines Act" said it would result in "increased competition that will lead towards a lowering of prices as well as assuring quality medicines."
• Conference of committee report
• Joint explanatory statement
Among the provisions are limits to patent protections which will allow local companies to produce generic versions of the more expensive versions of drugs of multinational companies.
It also provides for "parallel importation" of such expensive drugs if it is found that another country is selling them at a lower price.
The bill also includes a "non-discriminatory clause" which requires drug stores to carry competing products so that large pharmaceutical firms cannot intimidate pharmacies into only carrying their products, Roxas said.
It will also have a "price monitoring and control mechanism," which will allow the health secretary to set maximum prices for medicines.
The law also authorizes the President to impose drug price ceilings when it is needed.
“We will allow the free market forces to do its job. But if that will not take effect, we have the regulatory function of the secretary of health,” Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez, co-chair of the bicameral conference committee that deliberated on the bill, said.
“There was a great deal of pressure for the government not to compete with these drug companies. Now that the law is passed, not just the government but even the private sector can import drugs or medicines from another country as long as they comply with the guidelines to be set by the Bureau of Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health,” Roxas said in a statement.
Generics only removed
Large pharmaceutical companies had opposed many provisions of the bill and had successfully lobbied to have a provision, requiring doctors to prescribe only generic medicines, removed.
However the pressure for the passage of the bill increased in recent months due to the government's need to find ways to offset the greater burden imposed by higher fuel, rice and bread costs here.
Local activists have long complained that the Philippines has some of the highest drug prices in Asia and blamed this on price manipulation by large companies that hold the patents of many of the drugs.
Fight for generics not over
Congressmen who strongly pushed for the generics only provision of the law said that although they eventually acceeded to the Senate's “watered-down” version of the cheaper medicines bill, it doesn’t mean that the fight is over.
Alvarez said it was only a “tactical retreat.” The congressmen will continue to push for a law mandating doctors to prescribe generics only “on another front” by strengthening the Generics Act of 1998.
“Even if we didn’t’ win the generics only provision on this round, we will go up against the international pharmaceutical companies again in pushing for the new Generics Act,” said another member of the House panel, Akbayan Rep. Risa Hontiveros.
Take the Senate to task
Senator Pia Cayetano, in trying to break the impasse on the ‘generics only’ provision, told congressmen that she is also set to review the Generics Act. “We will be taking the Senate to task on that,” Alvarez said.
Sought for comment, Cayetano told abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak, “My commitment is there. I made it very clear to them, the Generics Act of 2008 is one of the laws that need to be reviewed.”
Cayetano added that eventually, “we want the government to become the major purchaser of generics. It’s one of many things that we want to happen…. But let’s not rush it. We want to study it carefully,” she said.
‘Generics only’ prescriptions ill-timed
The Senate panel, during the deliberations on the cheaper medicines bill, argued that the government is not ready for a “generics only” prescription. They expressed doubt over the Bureau of Food and Drug’s (BFAD) capability to make sure that the generic drugs that enter the country are not fake.
(The bill allows private companies to import drugs or medicines from another country as long as they comply with the guidelines set by the BFAD and the Department of Health.)
Cayetano said that a bill seeking to strengthen the BFAD is already pending in the Senate committee on health. The Generics Act of 1998 is just one among the laws involving healthcare that she intends to revisit, she said. “It is not only affordable and quality medicines that we want to make available. We want healthcare to be accessible.”
The bicameral committee deliberating the bill took about four months to break the impasse on the “generics only” provision. While the House panel strongly pushed for it, the Senate panel wanted a compromise version so that the bill would be passed.
Hontiveros said that inspite of the scrapping of the “generics only” provision, the passage of the cheaper medicines bill is “a step towards reforming the whole health system.”
She said that the House’s original intention was really to push for the parallel importation in the cheaper medicines bill and then separately push for the “generics only” prescriptions in revisiting the Generics Act of 1998. But she said the “generics only” provision was eventually added to the cheaper medicines bill after they got the support of the Department of Health.
The President’s wisdom
Alvarez acknowledged that President Arroyo’s directive early in the month to scrap the “generics only” provision played a role in the House’s decision to give in to the Senate version.
President Arroyo said, “We don't want a masterpiece that will never be played. We want something that may be less than perfect but can be carried out. So, that is our proposal now because we realize while it (‘generics only’ provision) will make the bill perfect, it will not make it pass, then let us just have a less than perfect bill.”
Alvarez said “it’s not so much that we were influenced [by President Arroyo’s directive]. We saw the wisdom of the President. The bill will not move. You have to let go of it. No matter how strong we felt about the generics provision. The Senate was unbending. They were immovable.”
Before the President’s directive, the congressmen were still fighting for a sunrise provision giving the BFAD three years to prepare the industry for a “generics only” prescription.