Pharma and Karma

As with most of the progressive policy reform bills that we try to push in Congress, we did not expect that passing the Affordable Medicines Bill (House Bill 6035) would be easy. When deliberations on the bill actually began, we had mixed feelings about what was to come. On one hand, the bill was certified as urgent by GMA (for once she did something right), which meant that we could theoretically depend on the support of JDV and the majority bloc. It has also been passed on third reading by the Senate, which we hoped would somewhat strengthen the impetus for the Thirteenth Congress to add something important to its less-than-impressive list of laws made.

On the other hand, we heard through the grapevine that the lawyers of PHAP, the umbrella org of pharmaceutical companies operating in the Philippines (whom I personally think of as an evil bunch, subject maybe to a few exceptions), were directed “to spare no expense” in making sure that the bill would not see the light of the day.

This, of course, was far from surprising. For years, multinational pharmaceutical companies have dominated the sale and distribution of medicines in the country, and they could not be expected to give up their huge profit margins without a fight. Imagine, on the anti-hypertensive drug Norvasc alone, Pfizer earns more than a billion pesos a year. That’s right. Not millions, but BILLIONS. That’s on ONE drug alone, for ONE company, in ONE country.

Here are more facts to digest: The price of medicines in the Philippines is said to be second highest (if not the highest) in Asia. The difference in prices across the region is astounding. For instance, Ponstan, a popular pain reliever produced by drug giant Pfizer, costs around P21 in the Philippines but only P2.61 in India and P1.38 in Pakistan. A 10-mg tablet of Norvasc costs about P70 in the Philippines. In India, Pfizer sells the exact same product for only P9. Ventolin, a drug for persons suffering from asthma, sells for P315 here while Glaxo sells it for P123 in India and only P62 in Pakistan. Outrageous, noh?

Big bad pharma will say that the high price of medicines in the country is due to their investments for research and development. This is simply misleading. What pharma will not admit is that the costs for R&D are considered to be “sunk costs” which are not really factored in pricing. The fact of the matter is that MNCs price drugs according to market forces or “what the market can bear.” The problem here is that the only markets they consider when they formulate prices are the A & B markets! I guess they think that the A-B crowd are the only people who matter since they are the ones who can afford to buy medicines in the first place, in effect placing often life-saving medicines further beyond the reach of the ordinary Juan and Juana dela Cruz. (Makes me angry, really. I’d buy me some Norvasc, only I couldn’t afford it.) In a country like ours, where only a tiny fraction of the population has decent access to healthcare, this is simply unacceptable. Health should not be a matter of privilege. It should be a matter of right.

MNCs are able to dictate drug prices because of the virtual monopoly that they enjoy over the sale and distribution of medicines in the country where almost 80% of the total sales of medicines belong to MNCs. This domination is caused by many factors, one of which is the prevailing laws on patents and intellectual property rights. The grant of a patent gives to the patent owner the exclusive right to exploit the patented product and control its sale, use, distribution, manufacture and so forth. In a country where up to 45% of the top 20 medicines sold are patented, reforming patent laws is therefore extremely important.

By pushing for the passage of the Affordable Medicines Bill in Congress, what we at Akbayan are trying to do is to amend existing patent laws to make them more responsive to the healthcare needs of the Filipino people. In particular, the bill proposes to:
• Allow for parallel importation of drugs as a tool for price reduction, by adopting the principle of international exhaustion of rights. What this does is enable the government to import the same brand-name medicines that the MNCs sell in other countries at much cheaper prices;
• Introduce the so-called Bolar or early working provision in the Intellectual Property Code, which would accelerate the production of generics by allowing commercial research on the production of drugs whose patents are about to expire;
• Prevent the practice of “evergreening” or the issuance of frivolous patents resorted to by pharmaceutical companies to unjustly extend the life of a patent ; and
• Widen and enhance the power of the government to use patented products.

We believe that these measures are essential if we are to begin to dismantle the monopoly that MNCs have in the pharmaceutical industry and bring down the prohibitive costs of medicines in the country. While patent rights should give the patent holder a reasonable degree of protection, they should not be used to create monopolies especially when they undermine something as fundamental and inalienable as the right to health. I mean, we’re not talking about some luxury consumer product here like cars, plasma TVs, or branded clothes. As the Akbayan platform on health asserts: “public health is not a question of market imperatives or trade, and that human development and social equity should never be made subservient to profit.” Contrary to what the MNCs seem to believe, for us, drugs and medicines which heal people and save lives should not be luxury items that only the rich can afford.

By now, most people know about the infamous note-passing incident that led to the ejection from the Plenary Hall of Congress of four pharmaceutical industry representatives who attempted to block the passage of the Affordable Medicines Bill by asking a congressman to question the quorum. As my boss Risa would say, we should thank them for “shooting themselves magnificiently in the foot.” After all, that brazen attempt led not only to the immediate passing of the bill on second reading, but also to calls by members of Congress to actually ban big pharma from Congress, and on the part of Akbayan, to call for an investigation into their lobbying practices so that House rules or national legislation on ethical and professional lobbying practices in Congress may be crafted.

For me, that was one of the best days ever. Talk about real-life drama! (It even made dropping a 5-unit subject under an excellent professor worth it!) It was especially worth it for the bill’s advocates, especially the senior citizens, NGO workers, and other advocates including supportive government agencies who were there with us keeping vigil over the proceedings for the past two weeks. (I should give due recognition to our friends from the Cut the Cost Cut the Pain Network such as Oxfam GB, Medical Action Group, and Coalition of Services for the Elderly; FTA; Third World Network; Ayos na Gamot sa Abot na Presyo; PLCPD; and DDG Bim Galicia – my hero!- and his staff from the Intellectual Property Office). The presence of those pharma lawyers in their fancy suits and the show they were making every now and then of chit-chatting with some of the congressmen like they were such buddies were understandably disheartening to the advocates. I mean, a few millions to spend on a few congressmen would just be a drop in the bucket of this billion-peso industry. We, on the other hand, could hardly come up with funds to stage a few pickets. But sometimes, arrogance and greed can be a backfiring bitch…

Besides facilitating the bill’s passage, what that incident brought to fore is the truth that the battle over the bill is simply a battle between corporate interest and the Filipino people’s right to have access to safe, effective, and affordable medicines. This battle, however, is not over yet. We await its approval on third reading and passage into law when the 13th Congress reconvenes for the last four days in June. In the next few weeks and months, we anticipate those opposing the bill to continue to do what they can to protect their own vested interests. We don’t really know what other tricks they have up their sleeves, but we shall be ready for them. We may not have the millions of pesos that big bad pharma has at its disposal, but we have something much better — that is the heartfelt conviction and sincere motives of true advocates with unwavering commitment to the cause of bringing public health back in the realm of basic rights and human dignity.


3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    alex said,

    Excellent. More Power to you all. I just wish that the search for social justice will not end here…but will continue and that this experience will trigger other filipinos to stand firm and defend theri own rights…


    Your always friend

  2. 2

    Jae said,

    Whats sad is that some of those pharma lawyers are our age. 😦


  3. 3

    Jae said,

    Love the title, by the way.

    Parang “Patients before Patents”.

    Clap clap.

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