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.

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walk with me down
toward the river’s edge
and watch the changing water
let’s look across to the other side
where we have never been
hold my hand and jump in
this is not the day to drown
the water will be cold
the current swift
but we will fight our way afloat
and stand on the shore again
on the other side
where we have never been
but always were

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