India To Expand NLEM 2011: A Step In The Right Direction

Responding to growing discontentment on the flawed National List of Essential Medicines 2011 (NLEM 2011) and equally vociferous demand for its urgent rectification, on May 5, 2015, in a written reply to the Lower House of Indian Parliament (Lok Sabha) the Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers – Mr. Ananth Kumar made the following submission:

“The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, has constituted a Core Committee of Experts to review and recommend the revision of National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) 2011 in the context of contemporary knowledge of use of therapeutic products.”

According to earlier media reports, the Government had formed this Core Committee in May 2014 under Dr. V.M Katoch, Secretary, Department of Health Research (DHR) and Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). However to utter dismay of many, even in a full year’s time, the Committee has not been able to come out with any tangible recommendations in this area.

In his reply from the floor of the Parliament, the Union Minister added with a tinge of reassurance:

“The Core committee has already held wide consultations with stakeholders and is likely to come out with its recommendations on the revised NLEM soon… The revised NLEM would form the basis of number of medicines which would come under price control,”

This reply from the Minister was in response to a query from a lawmaker on what steps have been taken by the Government to expand the list of NLEM 2011 and provide them to the poor at affordable prices.

Mr. Ananth Kumar also reiterated, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) has already fixed the ceiling prices in respect of 521 medicines till date, out of 628 NLEM formulations included in the first schedule of DPCO, 2013.

“The revised NLEM would bring more drugs under price control”, the Minister said.

NPPA’s earlier initiative was thwarted:

It is worth noting that in 2014, to include all drugs of mass consumption, in addition to essential and life saving medicines, NPPA initiated an exercise to expand the NLEM 2011.

At that time, quite rightly I reckon, the pharmaceutical industry vehemently protested against this regulatory overreach of NPPA and sought judicial intervention at least in two High Courts of India.

Moreover, as is well known today, NPPA’s attempt to regulate prices of medicines of mass consumption got thwarted, when the Union Government intervened and directed the price regulator to withdraw its related internal guidelines. Coincidentally this lightning action was taken just before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s schedule visit to the United States in end 2014.

Be that as it may, the industry observers consider the last week’s announcement of the Union Minister, from the floor of the Parliament, to expand the span of NLEM 2011 as a step in the right direction for improving access to affordable essential medicines for all in India.

A brief backdrop for ‘Essential Medicines’:

The World Health Organization (W.H.O) has defined ‘Essential Medicines’ as those that ‘satisfy the priority healthcare needs of the population’. It has been propagating this concept since 1977, when W.H.O published the first Model List of Essential Drugs with 208 medicines. All these medicines together provided safe, effective treatment for the majority of communicable and non-communicable diseases, at that time.

Every two year this list is updated. The current Model List of Essential Medicines, prepared by the W.H.O Expert Committee in April 2013, is its 18th Edition.

According to W.H.O, such ‘Essential Medicines’ are selected with due regard to disease prevalence, evidence on efficacy and safety, and comparative cost-effectiveness. The Organization categorically states:

Essential medicines are intended to be available within the context of functioning health systems at all times in adequate amounts, in the appropriate dosage forms, with assured quality, and at a price the individual and the community can afford.

Many countries of the world, India included now, have the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) and some have provincial or state lists as well, such as, in Tamilnadu Rajasthan and Delhi.

Health being a state subject in India, NLEM usually relates closely to Standard Treatment Guidelines (STGs) for use within the State Government health facilities. Ironically, such measures are currently being taken by just a small number of State Governments in the country.

NLEM – A forward-looking ongoing concept:

According to W.H.O, the concept of ‘Essential Medicines’ is forward-looking and ongoing. This idea prompts the need to regularly update the selection of medicines in the NLEM, reflecting:

  • New therapeutic options
  • Changing therapeutic needs
  • The need to ensure drug quality
  • The need for continued development of better medicines
  • Medicines for emerging diseases
  • Medicines to meet changing resistance patterns

As a part of its ongoing exercise, on May 8, 2015, The World Health Organization (W.H.O) by a ‘News Release’ announced addition of several new treatments for cancer and hepatitis C to its list of ‘Essential Medicines’, which the agency believes should be made available at affordable prices.

All 5 new products for the treatment of Hepatitis C, including sofosbuvir and daclatasvir, were included in the List. These medicines cure more than 90 percent of those infected and cost from US$63,000 to US$94,500 in the United States, depending upon the drug and treatment regimen.

Considering, new breakthroughs made in cancer treatment in the last years, W.H.O also revised the full cancer segment of the Essential Medicines List this year: 52 products were reviewed and 30 treatments confirmed, with 16 new medicines added in the list, including Herceptin of Roche, and Gleevec of Novartis.

“When new effective medicines emerge to safely treat serious and widespread diseases, it is vital to ensure that everyone who needs them can obtain them,” said W.H.O Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan. “Placing them on the WHO Essential Medicines List is a first step in that direction.”

India would also require putting similar effective systems in place for a robust, ongoing and time-bound review process for its NLEM.

Immense health and economic impact of ‘Essential Medicines’:

Globally the health and economic impact of ‘Essential Medicines’ have been proved to be remarkable, especially in the developing countries, as such drugs are one of the most cost-effective elements in healthcare system of any time. That’s why the stakeholders bestow so much of importance on a well thought out and properly crafted list of essential medicines by the astute experts appointed by the Government.

According to W.H.O, while spending on pharmaceuticals represents less than one-fifth of total public and private health spending in most developed countries, it represents 15 to 30 percent of health spending in transitional economies and 25 to 66 percent in developing countries.

In developing countries, such as India, pharmaceuticals are the largest Out of Pocket (OoP) household health expenditure. “And the expense of serious family illness, including drugs, is a major cause of household impoverishment.”

Flawed NLEM could multiply access to medicines problems:

Despite well-documented global evidence regarding high potential of health and economic impact of ‘Essential Drugs’, if the NLEM does not include right kind of drugs and remains flawed, it could have significant adverse impact on the overall access to ‘Essential Medicines’ in India.

In addition, properly structured NLEM could help setting the right course in the procurement and supply of medicines in the public sector – national or state Government schemes that reimburse medicine costs, and also for domestic production of drugs in the country.

A quick overview of NLEM in India:

There was no functional NLEM in India before 2002. According to a paper titled “Decisions on WHO’s essential medicines need more scrutiny”, published in the BMJ on July 31, 2014, in India the first National Essential Medical List (NEML) was prepared in 1996. However, this list was neither implemented for procuring drugs nor were STGs drawn up.

It all started in 2002, when the National Drug Policy of India, announced in that year, was subsequently challenged through a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Karnataka High Court on the ground of being inflationary in nature. The Honorable Court by its order dated November 12, 2002 issued a stay on the implementation of that Policy.

This judgment was challenged by the Government in the Supreme Court, which vacated the stay vide its order dated March 10, 2003 and ordered as follows:

“We suspend the operation of the order to the extent it directs that the Policy dated February 15, 2002 shall not be implemented. However we direct that the petitioner shall consider and formulate appropriate criteria for ensuring essential and lifesaving drugs not to fall out of the price control and further directed to review drugs, which are essential and lifesaving in nature till 2nd May, 2003”.

As a result DPCO 1995 continued to remain operational, pending formulation of a new drug policy, based on NLEM based span of price control, as directed by the Honorable Supreme Court of India. Necessitated by this directive of the Apex Court of the country, the first NLEM of India came into effect in 2002.

In 2011, NLEM 2002 was subsequently reviewed and re-evaluated by a committee of 87 experts from various fields, and was replaced by the NLEM 2011 with 348 drugs.

In the recent years, following a series of protracted judicial and executive activities, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012 (NPPP 2012) came into effect on December 7, 2012. In the new policy the span of price control was changed to all drugs falling under the National List of Essential Medicines 2011 (NLEM 2011) and the price control methodology was modified from the cost-based to market based one. Accordingly the new Drug Price Control Order (DPCO 2013) was notified on May 15, 2013.

However, the matter is still subjudice, as NPPP 2012 would ultimately require passing the acid test of scrutiny by the Supreme Court of India, in the future days.

A recent study emphasizes need for urgent expansion of NLEM:

A March 2015 independent evaluation of DPCO 2013, which controls prices of essential medicines in India as featured in the NLEM 2011, brought to light some interesting facts. The Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) and the Institute for Studies in Industrial Development released this report titled “Pharmaceutical Policies in India: Balancing Industrial and Public Health Interests” at a conference on pharmaceutical policies in India, held in New Delhi from 3 to 7 March, 2015.

This independent evaluation would most probably be submitted to the Supreme Court where PHFI is one of the petitioners in a case challenging the current NPPP 2012.

The study found that price regulations of NLEM 2011 are limited to just 17 percent of the total pharmaceutical market in India. This leaves 83 percent of the domestic pharma market free from price control, providing only marginal financial relief to patients for all essential medicines, in its true sense, as desired by the Supreme Court of India. Thus, one of the key recommendations of this study is to review the NLEM 2011, urgently.

“Clearly the interests of the pharmaceutical industry have received precedence over the interest of the patient population,” the report highlighted.

Anurag Bhargava, of the Himalayan Institute of Medical Sciences, was quoted in March 2014 BMJ Article titled, “Analysts in India call for urgent expansion of essential medicines list”, saying:

“This is a matter of concern given that the NLEM was not drafted as an instrument for price regulation. It is a representative rather than a comprehensive list of medicines utilized in actual practice. To serve as a reference for rational prescribing, the NLEM includes only a few model dosage forms, strengths, and combinations of drugs.”

NLEM 2011 fails to reflect public health priorities:

The report, with relevant details, brings to the fore that NLEM 2011 has failed to reflect India’s public health priorities. It underscores the following glaring deficiencies in NLEM 2011, which covers just:

  • 1 percent of drugs for anemia
  • 5 percent of respiratory drugs
  • 7 percent of antidepressants
  • 15 percent of drugs for diabetes
  • 18 percent of drugs for tuberculosis
  • 13 percent of anti-malarial drugs
  • 23 percent of cardiac drugs
  • 35 percent of antibiotics

Areas for revision in NLEM 2011:

A critical appraisal of NLEM 2011 was done in the above-mentioned 2014 BMJ paper and also by the NPPA separately.

Taking all these into consideration, some key areas of concerns related to NLEM 2011 floats at the top of mind. A few examples of important issues, which need immediate attention, are as follows (not necessarily in the same order):

  • Other key strengths and dosage forms of the same drugs covered under NLEM 2011
  • Analogues of scheduled formulations not covered
  • Close substitutes in the same therapeutic class not covered
  • Some essential drugs listed in the W.H.O model list and even in Delhi list are missing in the NLEM 2011
  • Several essential HIV and Cancer drugs are not included in NLEM 2011
  • Essential oral anti-diabetic medicines, like glimeperide and glicazide do not find place in NLEM 2011, especially when the list in the DSPRUD for Delhi includes anti-diabetic medicines such as glimepiride, sitagliptin, vildagliptin, saxagliptin
  • Commonly used anti-asthmatic medicines like almeterol and montelukast are missing in NLEM 2011
  • When W.H.O model List (EML) includes capreomycin, cycloserine, ethionamide, kanamycin and para-aminosalicylic acid for treatment of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, these drugs are missing in NLEM 2011 list
  • Though a large number of Fixed Dose Combinations (FDCs) are prescribed to treat common ailments in India, especially in certain therapeutic groups such as respiratory, cardiovascular, anti-diabetic, dermatology, anti-malarial and anti TB/MDR TB, most of these are missing in NLEM 2011
  • While the W.H.O list mentions 21 vaccines, the NLEM 2011 mentions only nine vaccines
  • A separate list of lifesaving drugs based on existing lifesaving drugs list of government agencies like the CGHS needs to be worked out
  • Pediatric formulations need to be included in NLEM
  • Inclusion of some medical devices which are already covered under the definition of drugs under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act 1940
  • Essential and well-selected lifesaving patented drugs should also feature in the NLEM, just as what W.H.O has done this month by adding to its ‘Essential Medicines List’ all the five patented new curative treatments for hepatitis C, besides 16 new cancer drugs.

Thus, in its present form the NLEM 2011 needs a critical relook and revision, mainly in the light of the missing drugs and keeping in view of the requirements under various National Health Programs as well as the National Formulary of India 2010.

The BMJ paper also highlights, the Indian Academy of Pediatrics has come out with a list of ‘Essential Drugs’ for children in India. Such a list might be consulted for the Pediatric List of Essential Medicine within the NLEM. Provision should be made to review the NLEM at two yearly intervals, as is currently practiced by the W.H.O.

Civil Society steps in:

Accordingly, in August 2014, seven Civil Society Organizations in a letter to Minister Ananth Kumar with a copy to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, among others, wrote as follows:

“Limiting all price regulation only to a list of 348 medicines and specified dosages and strengths in the DPCO 2013 goes against the policy objective of making medicines affordable to the public. The National List of Essential Medicines, a list of 348 rational and cost-effective medicines, is not the basis for production, promotion and prescription in India. In reality the most frequently prescribed and consumed medicines are not listed in the NLEM.”

Healthcare: China on a fast track, India crawls through a slow lane: 

Interestingly, to help improve economic growth and boost domestic consumption, China has recently decided to floor the gas pedal on the fast lane of healthcare reform, while India chose to continue to crawl through its slow lane.

Interestingly, both the countries want to draw similar sets of trend lines for health and economic progress of their respective nations.

This has been vindicated by Reuters report of May 9, 2015, when it highlighted, China would increase its healthcare subsidies by 19 percent this year as part of efforts to deepen social reforms and strengthen safety nets.

The report also indicated, economists view this measure as crucial for China to improve the quality of its healthcare, if it wishes to remake its economy and boost domestic consumption. They say a stronger safety net will encourage Chinese to spend more and save less.

As opposed to the Chinese scenario, in India, the Union Budget 2015-16 came as a real dampener for the healthcare space in the country. This assumes greater significance, as the budget was planned by the reform oriented Modi Government.

Despite the dismal state of current public healthcare services, the annual budgetary allocation for healthcare has been kept at Rs. 33,152 Crore, just a tad more than Rs. 30,645 Crore of 2014-15, with no visible indication for any healthcare reform measure in the country, any time soon.

Conclusion:

‘Essential Medicines’ based drug price control, as was directed by the Honorable Supreme Court of India, is just not far sighted, but a potential game changer in the healthcare space of the country.

While looking at the bigger picture, this policy also promises a significant contribution in the overall economic progress of the nation.

To make this policy effective in the longer term, NLEM should be fair, impartial, far sighted, up to date, robust and beyond obvious any controversy, which includes its authors… just as the spirit behind the good old saying: “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.”

Unfortunately, NLEM 2011 is mired with many shortcomings for all the wrong reasons, as discussed above.

The incumbent Government would require striking a just and right balance between public health interest and expectations of the Pharma industry in this critical area. Taking the right policy decision in a transparent an effective manner, balancing the healthcare and economic interest of the country, would be critical.

That said, Pharma industry in India, I reckon, would also not be devastatingly impacted with the possible expansion of NLEM. This is mainly because, currently only 17 percent of the total pharmaceutical market in India comes under price control, based on the span of NLEM 2011 formulations. In any case, the balance 83 percent of the domestic pharma market still falls under the free-pricing zone.

Even when DPCO 1995 came into force, which continued till DPCO 2013 became effective, 20 percent of the total domestic pharmaceutical market was under price control.

Moreover, there was no provision for automatic annual price increases for price-controlled drugs under DPCO 1995. Whereas DPCO 2013 has a provision for annual price increases for all such essential drugs based on WPI. As a result, MRPs of all price controlled essential drugs have gone up effective April 1 of this year and would continue to happen so every year, as long as NPPP 2012 remains in force.

Under this complex mosaic and fast evolving backdrop, the announcement of the Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers – Mr. Ananth Kumar on the floor of the Parliament last week is a laudable one.

To help improve access to affordable essential medicines for all in the country, the Minister has reiterated, “The expanded NLEM would bring more essential drugs under price control.”  This categorical affirmation by the Government in power, though belated, is a step in the right direction…for both better healthcare and also its consequential critical impact on the economic progress of India.

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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