Drug Price Control in India: A Fresh Advocacy With Blunt Edges

It is no-brainer that the advocacy initiatives to influence the new Government doing away with the ‘Drug Price Control’ in India has re-started by flooring the gas pedal. A fresh invigorating effort, apparently a pretty expensive one, has been initiated in July 2015 with an interesting study conducted on the subject by an international market research organization, sponsored by a multi-national pharma trade association in India.

Having gone through the report, it appears to me, as if the whole purpose of the study was to rationalize an ‘advance’ conclusion in mind, weaving plethora of data around it for justification.

The report presents an abundance of selective data, apparently to rubbish the very concept of ‘Drug Price Control’ in India. In that process, it reinforced the existence of a deep seated malady in the overall sales and marketing strategic framework of most of the pharma players, rather than failure of ‘Drug Price Control’ in India, meant for the essential drugs.

In this article, I shall dwell on this issue adding my own perspective. Although my views are different, I totally respect the findings and suggestions made in this report.

Drug price control in India:

From 1970, Drug Price Control Orders (DPCO) are being issued in India under the Essential Commodities Act, without any break, so far. The key intent of the DPCO is to provide quality essential medicines at a reasonably affordable price to the consumer. The DPCO has been amended four times since then, the latest one being DPCO 2013.

Unlike the previous ones, the span of price control of DPCO 2013 is restricted to essential medicines, as featured in the National List of Essential Medicines 2011 (NLEM 2011). The methodology of price control has also now changed to ‘marked-based’ pricing from earlier ‘cost-based’ pricing.

However, for the first time in July 2013, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) extended ‘Drug Price Control’ beyond the Schedule Drugs, when by a notification it announced price fixation of ‘anti-diabetic and cardiovascular drugs in respect of 108 non-scheduled formulation packs under Paragraph 19 of DPCO, 2013’,

Paragraph 19 of DPCO, 2013, authorizes the NPPA in extraordinary circumstances, if it considers it necessary to do so in public interest, to fix the ceiling price or retail price of any drug for such period as it deems fit.

Although the pharma industry initially had supported the switch from ‘cost based’ price control to ‘market based’ price control and only for NLEM 2011 drugs, it took a tougher stand after the above notification. Some trade association reverted to the same good old genre, yet again, trying to establish that ‘Drug Price Control’ does not help at all. The brand new market research report under discussion in this article, appears to be a step in that direction.

‘Market failure in pharma’ where competition does not work:

In its price notification dated July 10, 2014, as mentioned above, the NPPA justified its action by underscoring ‘market failure’ for those anti-diabetic and cardiovascular drugs, where competition does not work. NPPA considered ‘market failure’ as one of the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ and explained the situation as follows:

  • There exist huge inter-brand price differences in branded-generics, which is indicative of a severe market failure, as different brands of the same drug formulation, which are identical to each other in terms of active ingredient(s), strength, dosage, route of administration, quality, product characteristics, and intended use, vary disproportionately in terms of price
  • It is observed that, the different brands of the drug formulation may sometimes differ in terms of binders, fillers, dyes, preservatives, coating agents, and dissolution agents, but these differences are not significant in terms of therapeutic value.
  • In India the market failure for pharmaceuticals can be attributed to several factors, but the main reason is that the demand for medicines is largely prescription driven and the patient has very little choice in this regard.
  • Market failure alone may not constitute sufficient grounds for government intervention, but when such failure is considered in the context of the essential role of pharmaceuticals play in the area of public health, which is a social right, such intervention becomes necessary, especially when exploitative pricing makes medicines unaffordable and beyond the reach of most and also puts huge financial burden in terms of out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare.

I discussed this subject in my bog post of April 27, 2015 titled, “Does ‘Free-Market Economy’ Work For Branded Generic Drugs In India?

Are medicines cheapest in India, really?

It is quite often quoted that medicines are cheapest in India. In my view, it would be too simplistic, if we compare the prevailing Indian drug prices in Rupee, against prices of similar drugs in other countries, just by simple conversion of the foreign currencies, such as, US$ and Euro converted into Rupee. To make the comparison realistic and credible, Indian drug prices should be compared against the same in other countries only after applying the following two critical parameters:

  • Purchasing Power Parity and Per Capita Income
  • Quantum of per capita ‘Out of Pocket Expenditure’ on drugs

The Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) with the help of academia and other experts had earlier deliberated on this issue in one of its reports on patented drugs pricing. The report established that post application of the above two parameters, medicines in India are virtually as expensive as in the developed world, causing great inconvenience to majority of patients in the country.

Hence, common patients expectedly look for some kind of critical intervention by the Government, at least, on the prices of essential drugs in India.

A new study on drug price control:

Recently, I came across a ‘brand new’ research report that tries to justify the fresh stance allegedly taken by the pharma industry on the abolition of ‘Drug Price Control’ in India.

This new study of IMS Health released on July 2015, sponsored by a pharma MNC trade association in India, titled “Assessing the Impact of Price Control Measures on Access to Medicines in India”, categorically highlights ‘price control is neither an effective nor sustainable strategy for improving access to medicines for Indian patients’.

The key findings:

The following are the key findings of the report:

  • High income patient populations, rather than the low-income targets are the primary beneficiaries of the DPCO 2013.
  • The consumption of price-controlled drugs in rural areas has decreased by 7 percent over the past two years, while that of non-price controlled products has risen by 5 percent.
  • The DPCO 2013 has resulted in an increase in market concentration and a decrease in competitive intensity.
  • Price control has increased margin pressures for small and mid-sized companies, limiting both employment and investment opportunities in the sector.
  • Price controls negatively impact internal capability-building and expertise-building initiatives, discourage local talent and undermine the government’s ’Make in India’ initiative.

The suggestions made:

In my view, the report almost repeats the same old suggestions being made by the pharma industry over decades. However, while making recommendations, this new report selectively quotes, without clearly naming them, from the draft National Health Policy 2015 and ‘Jan Aushadhi’ initiative of the DoP. It also attempts to ride on the shoulder of Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign. The key recommendations of the study are, as follows:

  • Strengthen healthcare financing and extend universal health coverage across population segments with focus on providing cover for medicines
  • Invest in healthcare infrastructure and capability building
  • Promote joint and bulk procurement mechanisms, e.g. Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation
  • Levy a cess on the tobacco and liquor industries to fund the healthcare sector and subsidize essential medicines from taxes
  • Introduce mechanisms to ensure availability of generics at lower prices, to improve affordability for patients i.e. set up dedicated generic medicine stores.

An official of IMS Health was also quoted by the media that sounds to me almost like pontification:

“Price control has limited impact on improving patient access and, furthermore is not aligned with the requirements of a vibrant economy like India” and the “Government’s priority should be on strengthening India’s healthcare infrastructure and extending universal insurance coverage.”

The blunt edges in the report raise more questions than answers:

I wonder, whether another apparently expensive research, such as this, was at all necessary to reinvent the same old advocacy narratives on ‘Drug Price Control’ in India.

As I note, the report highlights, The consumption of price-controlled drugs in rural areas has decreased by 7 percent over the past two years, while that of non-price controlled products has risen by 5 percent.” If this is true, one should try to fathom:

  • What does it really mean and what are its implications?
  • Can it happen, if it has happened, just because of ‘Drug Price Control’?

I am raising these two questions mainly because, price controlled drugs are prescription medicines. Thus, post DPCO 2013, when it happens to ‘prescription only medicines’, other critical questions that come at the top of mind are as follows:

  • Are the doctors now prescribing less of price controlled drugs? If so, why?
  • Price controlled drugs being essential drugs, are the doctors prescribing less of essential drugs? If so, why?
  • Do the doctors prefer prescribing expensive ‘non-schedule’ drugs to patients against their interest? if so, why?

Further, deliberately causing decline in consumption of these drugs, for margin or whatever may be the reasons, without intimating the NPPA as stipulated in the DPCO 2013, is a serious offense, attracting stringent penal action under the Essential Commodities Act.

Therefore, if the above finding of this study is correct and assuming that NPPA is not aware of such shortages or declining consumption of essential drugs in India, yet another critical question that needs to be answered:

  • By deliberately bringing down the consumption of essential medicines, are the concerned pharma players not taking the law in their own hands?

If yes, the Government would need to act forthwith. If not, the above finding of the report is just not correct.

The DoP, NPPA and other stakeholders would, therefore, need to ferret out, which one of the above two is correct.

Thus, I reckon, to wish away ‘Drug Price Control’ in India, the fresh advocacy initiative of the pharma trade association, keeping in the forefront a new study with blunt edges, raises more questions than answers. I have given just an example here, as above.

More marketing push on ‘free-pricing’ drugs is common:

It is not uncommon that the sales of ‘free-pricing’ drugs are usually more, as their margin is unlimited. Pharma players take increasing interest in those drugs and push them harder, almost totally controlling the ‘push-pull’ effect of drug marketing.

Globally, drug companies take increasing interest in such medicines. India is no exception. Here too ‘out of price control’ non-schedule drugs usually show higher growth, as the doctors are influenced to prescribe more of such drugs, though at the cost of consumer.

This practice may not be acceptable to many, but is a stark reality. This process is expected to continue, at least, till Uniform Code of Pharmaceutical Marketing Practices (UCPMP) is made mandatory with strict enforcement and strong punitive provisions for any violations.

Is the growth of price controlled drugs declining?

If the growth of price controlled medicines drastically comes down post DPCO 2013, that should get reflected on the declining overall sales and growth of those drugs. Similar pattern should also be visible in the growth of those types products marketed by most of the major pharma companies in India.

Let me now present the scenario of that space. The following analysis is based on the monthly retail audit data of AIOCD Pharmasofttech AWACS.

When I look at the growth of DPCO 2013 products based on NLEM 2011 and other price controlled drugs under ‘Para 19’ from January to July 2015 period in the following table, the scenario does not look as worrying just yet, as the above report has made it out to be.  

Product group-wise market growth (in Value):

Month (2015) DPCO products (%) DPCO  Para 19 Products (%) Non-DPCO Products (%) Total Market Growth (%)
July 5.1 11.8 14.2 12.9
June 5.6 14.6 16.2 14.8
May 5.3 7.2 12.1 11.0
April 11.1 11.9 18.4 17.2
March 1.6 15.6 21.7 20.9
February 13.9 14.4 20.0 18.9
January 6.9 NA 14.0 12.7

(Source: AIOCD Pharmasofttech AWACS )

Again, in the following table, when I look at the growth of DPCO 2013 products of some the very major pharma players in India, the conclusion still remains the same as above:

DPCO Products Growth (%) by major companies (Jan-July 2015):

Company July June May April March Feb Jan
Ranbaxy 20.5 31.9 29.5 17.3 27.6 20.7 53.7
Pfizer 13.0 17.4 5.7 16.7 25.6 21.1 18.6
Abbott 7.2 11.7 18.5 13.5 15.5 18.3 21.2
GSK -2.1 - 1.8 -1.2 12.2 12.2 NA NA

(Source: AIOCD Pharmasofttech AWACS )

The blunt edges fail to cut ice:

Quite expectedly, even a month after its release in July 2015, the blunt edges in the report seem to have cut no ice, especially at a very important place that matters most to the industry in this area. This observation gets vindicated by a credible media report.

On August 24, 2015 in an interview to a national business daily, V K Subburaj, the Secretary of the Department of Pharmaceuticals commented, “Price control on drugs a shot in the arm for health care” and “the Government cannot do away with it.”

He argued, “A large section of the population is poor. Suddenly, your system is disturbed if you have to spend more on drugs. Drugs are an important component of health care expenditure.”

Accepting the fact that in India, big and small companies investing in research would need more money, Mr. Subburaj said, “In India, we can’t afford to remove controls as the burden of disease is high.”

Conclusion:

With all due respect to all concerned, the above report appears to me palpably commercial, sans any worthy academic value or intellectual input that could trigger thinking for a change in the Government policy. The report apparently lacks in the required cutting edge to achieve the intended goal. The blunt edges are glaring, suggesting on the contrary, that the real action actually lies with the industry. Let me hasten to add, if any one has a different view on the subject, I would respect that with all humility.

The drug price control in India has been continuing since 1970, without any gap. The retail audit data clearly indicates that the growth of the Indian pharma industry did not get stunted or stifled during the period for this particular reason, as postulated in the above report of IMS Health. On the contrary, despite price control of drugs with all its ‘ill-effects’, as highlighted in the study, the growth of the Indian pharma industry in the last 4 decades has been nothing less than spectacular. This would consequently mean, increasing consumption of drugs, leading to improving access to medicines in India, including its hinterland, though may still not be good enough. I discussed this subject in my blog post of December 13, 2013, titled “Access to Medicine: Losing Track in Cacophony”.

Coincidentally, at the commencement of drug price control regime in India, almost all, if not all, the players in the ‘Top 10’ pharma league table of the country, were multi-national drug companies. Today the situation has just reversed. Out of ‘Top 10’, about 7 are home grown drug companies. Many of these companies were born post 1970. Without M&As by the pharma MNCs, this number could have been even higher today.

When it comes to profitability, it is worth mentioning, the soft-spoken and well-respected owner of the so called ‘low margin’ generic pharma company – Sun Pharma, is the second-richest person of the country. He created his initial wealth from India, despite ostensible ‘growth stunting’ price control – as elaborated in the above report.

By the way, what is the span of drug price control in India really – just around 18 percent of the total domestic pharma market now? More than 80 percent of the local drug market continue to remain in the ‘free-pricing’ and ‘high-profit’ zone. In that case, is the essence of the report not chanting… ‘yeh dil maange more’?

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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