On August 4, 2010 the Parliamentary standing committee for Health and Family Welfare in its 45th report, recommended the following to the ‘Rajya Sabha’ of the Parliament of India for ‘Making quality medicines available at an affordable price’ to the common man:
1. Blanket caps on the profit margins of all medicines across the board, as these are the ‘only items’ where the purchasing decision is taken by a doctor – a third party and not by the patients who will actually pay for such medicines. In such a situation, a possible’ unholy nexus’ between the prescribing doctors and the pharmaceutical companies could put the patients at a disadvantage and in a helpless situation.
2. This blanket cap on profit for ALL drugs will discourage pharmaceutical companies to shift the balance of their product portfolio from schedule (price control) to non-schedule (outside price control) formulations.
3. This action will make the administration of the ‘Price Control’ mechanism by the Government much simpler by eliminating the current practice of price monitoring and the government preference of substitution of generic drugs for the branded pharmaceuticals
4. MRP of ALL medicines should be determined by the NPPA based on an open and transparent process and considering interests of all stake holders, as is currently being followed in other areas like, electricity tariff, bus, auto rickshaw and taxi fares, insurance premiums and various interest rates.
5. The Department of Health and Family Welfare and the Department of Pharmaceuticals should work out a system through the Inter-Ministerial Coordination Committee to put a blanket cap on profit margins of ALL drugs across the board, immediately.
6. Despite amendment of the MCI guidelines for the doctors in December 2009, banning the acceptance of all kinds of gifts, trips to foreign destinations and availing various types of hospitality by them from the pharmaceutical companies, nothing much has changed on the ground related to such ’unethical practices’. Since MCI has no jurisdiction over the pharmaceutical companies, the government should formulate similar punitive steps through the DCGI, CBDT etc. against the erring pharmaceutical companies.
7. The Committee indicated that it desires to be kept apprised of the action taken in this regard by the Government.
The key factors influencing affordability of medicines:
All the above steps will remain as good intent by the policy makers, if the issue of access to medicines is not addressed simultaneously. As we know that affordability will have no meaning, if one does not have even access to medicines.
In my view, there are five key factors, which could ensure smooth access to medicines to the common man across the country; affordable price being just one of these factors:
1. A robust healthcare infrastructure
2. Affordable healthcare costs including pharmaceuticals
3. Rational selection and usage of drugs by all concerned
4. Availability of healthcare financing system like, health insurance
5. Efficient logistics and supply chain support throughout the country
High out of pocket expenditure could push a section of population below the poverty line:
In India ‘out of pocket expenditure’ as a percentage of total healthcare expenses is around 80%, being one of the highest in the world.
A study by the World Bank conducted in May 2001 titled, “India – Raising the Sights: Better Health Systems for India’s Poor” indicates that out-of-pocket medical costs alone may push 2.2% of the population below the poverty line in one year.
‘Missing woods for the trees’?
Affordability is indeed a relative yardstick. What is affordable to an average middle class population may not be affordable to the rest of the population even above the poverty line. Similarly, below the poverty line population may not be able to afford perhaps any cost towards medicines. In a situation like this, putting a blanket profit cap on all medicines will not be just enough. There is a crying need to put in place an appropriate healthcare financing model by the policy makers, covering all sections of the society. Are we then ‘missing woods for the trees’?
Create a robust healthcare provider group through Public Private Partnership (PPP) initiatives to offer quality healthcare at an affordable price:
To resolve the issue of affordability of healthcare in general including medicines, the policy makers should take immediate steps to put in place the ‘Healthcare Financing’ initiatives through a robust PPP model in the country. A highly competitive ‘Health Insurance’ sector, created through PPP, could emerge as a powerful and key healthcare provider in the country. The power that such stakeholders will then assume in deciding for their respective clientele, types of doctors, hospitals, diagnostic labs and even what types of medicines that will be dispensed to them to offer quality healthcare at an affordable price, could indeed be a game changer having an immense influence in bringing the cost of overall healthcare for the common man, including medicines, very significantly.
The ‘Health Insurance’ companies can then decide through the Third Party Administrators (TPA), based on public interest, what types of fees should be charged by the following to offer quality healthcare services at an affordable price to their clientele, if these groups would like to avail the huge business potential for a long period of time:
3. Diagnostic laboratories
4. Other related service providers
For making centralized purchase of medicines, these insurance companies or payors may enter into a hard negotiation with the pharmaceutical companies directly to bring down the price of medicines for the use of their respective clientele.
A recent incident:
To illustrate the above point let me quote an important and related news item, which was published in almost all the leading national daily newspaper, just in the last month.
In July 2010, it was reported that about 18 health insurance companies, who were providing cashless services to the policy holders at over 3,000 hospitals across India, found out that only 350 of them constituting around 11% of the total, were consuming more than 80% of the total claims.
It was also reported that the patients were overcharged by these hospitals for each hospitalization irrespective of the treatment provided and were left with them very little funds for their next treatment. This prompted the said insurance companies to bring some order out of the chaos, as it were.
As a result, at least 150 hospitals only from Delhi and the National Capital region were taken out of their designated list for the cashless facility, keeping the facility available at around 100 hospitals where none belonged to any corporate chain. Similar action was taken against hospitals in other cities, as well.
Thereafter, these insurance companies also decided to convey to the invidual policy holders the fresh list of hospitals for cashless facilities, working out new treatment packages depending on the quality of available healthcare infrastructure of each hospital and a lower or a higher rate was worked out for implementation, accordingly.
This illustration will vindicate how powerful and assertive the health insurance companies could be with the effective use of the TPAs for the sake of public health interest, if they wish to and at the same time to protect their respective bottom lines, creating a win-win situation for all.
It is indeed an irony that despite being the 4th largest producer of pharmaceuticals and catering to the needs of 20 per cent of the global requirements for the generic medicines, India is still unable to ensure access to modern medicines to around 650 million population of the country (The World Medicine Report, WHO 2004). Like in many other emerging economies of the world, in India too, access to modern medicines along with their affordability, is the key macro healthcare issue of the nation.
In a situation like this, as stated above, when the payors or health insurance companies will start exerting immense performance pressure to all concerned to provide quality healthcare at an affordable price, even the alleged ‘unholy nexus’ between the pharmaceutical companies and the medical profession, perhaps will not have any practical relevance.
It is worth pondering, whether the Government is now sending confusing signals to the civil society at large by propagating ‘non-regulated pricing’ for Petroleum Products and ‘regulated pricing’ for pharmaceutical products?
By Tapan 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.