8 days ago

Making life-saving medicines affordable

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It is good to know that the recent spurt of medicine prices have drawn the attention of the authorities at the highest level. Assignment given to an intelligence agency to come up with a fact-finding report attest to the fact that the issue has been taken very seriously. Thanks are also due to the intelligence agency that has done its job quite promptly. Not only has it detected the problems but also made a 17-point recommendation. Its recommendation in favour of full government control on life-saving drugs in a country like Bangladesh is indisputable. This means that only the government will have the authority to fix prices of the generics considered life-saving drugs. The special branch has also been mindful to increase the list of such life-saving generics to 1,500 from the existing 117 which is too little for the purpose. Notably, in India 800 generic medicines have been enlisted in the life-saving category. If Bangladesh can expand the list to 800-1,000, it will be a great achievement right now.

True, the pharmaceutical industry has been facing some problems starting from import of raw materials or active pharmaceutical ingredients (API). Due to dollar crunch, opening of letters of credit (LCs) has become quite daunting. Of course, decline in value of Bangladesh currency taka against the greenback has made the matter even worse. In a situation like this, production cost has gone up. However, not only the common people but even expert in the field doubt if the recent abnormal price increase in drugs including the essential medicines is justified. An office bearer of the Bangladesh Association of Pharmaceutical Industries (BAPI) claimed that some medicines' prices have been adjusted after a long time and so the hike appears to be too high. According to him the last time it was done in 1996.

This appears to be a flawed argument. Better he would have provided the list of those medicines, the prices of which have not been reviewed since 1996. As everyone is aware, prices of medicines are increased quite often and he claims the yearly adjustments as stipulated in the law has not been effected. Is this the case? A clear picture of this should be presented so that the public know the facts in this regard. After all drugs, particularly the life-saving ones, cannot be treated as any other consumer goods. In a country where the people in general do not enjoy any health benefits and have to bear about 65 per cent out-of-pocket medical expenditure, at least they deserve some relief in terms of subsidised or discounted medicine prices, if not free medicines.

Now that the move has been initiated from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), there is every reason to hope for an agreeable outcome for all the parties involved. Already an API park has been established in Munshiganj. When more private pharmaceutical companies will start manufacturing API, the cost of medicine production will come down. If the range and scope of the state-owned Essential Drugs Company Limited (EDCL), which has a limited capacity and produces only 25 out of 117 life-saving drugs, are enhanced to produce more medicines and API in bulk quantities, drug prices can be drastically brought down.

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