The New Drug Policy is languishing in a labyrinth

Drug Price Control has remained the key feature of all Drug Policies of India, since their inception in early 70’s. Most of these policies continued to remain behind their times consistently, without any exception.

That said, the Drug Policy 1994 and the consequent Drug Price Control Order 1995 (DPCO  ’95) have now become the largest ‘Dinosaur’ of all Drug Policies. However, the most intriguing point though, both these have still been kept operational by the government and the very concept of a new and a more contemporary one is languishing in a labyrinth since over a decade, for reasons of anybody’s guess.

Drug Price Control system in India:

It appears that the drug price control system in India is here to stay, at least in the short to medium term and that too in a seemingly best case scenario.

The key reasons:

As we know, the key reasons of price control for pharmaceuticals in India are the following:

  • To contain cost of medicines, particularly the essential ones, at a reasonably affordable level, which is a very important part of the total healthcare expenditure of the common man.
  • To provide greater access to medicines to all, especially in view of very high  ‘out of pocket expenditure’ for health for a vast majority of population in the country.

The economic factors:

Some of the economic factors, which may cause impediments in achieving these objectives are the following:

  • Sub optimal public healthcare infrastructure, leaky delivery system and high cost of  private healthcare services
  • This is fueled by, as stated above, unabated increase in ‘out-of-pocket expenses’ on healthcare in general and medicines in particular at 78 per cent, as compared to 61 per cent in China, 53 per cent in Sri Lanka, 31 percent in Thailand, 29 per cent in Bhutan and 14 per cent in Maldives (Source: The Lancet)
  • High expenses on drugs for outpatient care

Though very important, drug cost alone, however, does not determine quality of access to healthcare.

Global scenario for drug price control:

As per published reports, all 34 developed nations of the world have ‘Universal Health Coverage’ mechanism in place in various different forms, including mandatory medical insurance requirements, to effectively address the issue of high access to healthcare including pharmaceuticals in their respective countries, significantly reducing ‘out of pocket expenses’ towards health.

All these 34 countries belong to ‘Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’, the governments of which, in some way or the other control and regulate drug prices.

The Governments/payors of most of these countries implement the price control measures by playing the role of a dominant market force directly, while negotiating a favorable price from the manufacturers, which are much lower than their equivalent free market prices.

Many other OECD governments set the drug reimbursement prices right at the time of introduction of new drugs through hard negotiation, which are also well below free market prices and acts as the bench mark market prices, in many ways.

In addition to all these mechanisms, the governments in many OECD countries periodically reduce the prices of already marketed drugs quite significantly.

A contrarian view on Drug Price Control:

Some industry experts feel that there is a hidden consequence for the ‘Drug Price Control System’, especially with the cost based one.

The cost based price control as is currently practiced by the government in India compels the pharmaceutical manufacturers to restrict to:

  • Minimum acceptable quality standard rather than maximum possible quality standards for the patients
  • Does not encourage innovation in formulation development like novel galenic formulations for better patient acceptance and compliance
  • Indirectly discourage innovation in product packaging
  • Ceiling Price mechanism does not encourage advanced anti-counterfeit measures for patients’ safety

These experts also feel that adverse consequences of price control will have a significant negative impact on the pharmaceutical players to plough back fund towards R&D projects to meet the unmet needs of the patients and thereby reducing the range of treatments that could be made available to the patients in the years ahead.

What is China doing?

On March 28, 2011 Reuters reported that China had cut the maximum retail price for more than 1,200 types of antibiotics and the drugs for the circulatory system by an average of 21 percent.

It has also been reported that the Chinese Government has put a cap on the prices of about 300 drugs featuring in their ‘National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM).’

Supreme Court directive on ‘Price Control’ of ‘Essential Medicines’:

It is worth noting in this context that in 2003, the Supreme Court of India, while setting aside the Drug Policy 2002 directed the government to work out effective mechanism to bring all essential and life-saving medicines under price control.

HLEG recommends ‘Price Control’ of ‘Essential Medicines’:

Even in its report the ‘High Level Expert Group (HLEG)’ on ‘Universal Health Coverage (UHC)’ in India, set up by the Planning Commission of India under the chairmanship of the well-known medical professional Prof. K. Srinath Reddy, under recommendation no. 3.5.1, postulated price control and price regulation on essential drugs, which is quite in line with the draft National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2011 (NPPP 2011).

The HLEG report says:

“We recommend the use of ‘essentiality’ as a criterion and applying price controls on formulations rather than basic drugs. Direct price control applied to formulations, rather than basic drugs, is likely to minimize intra-industry distortion in transactions and prevent a substantial rise in drug prices. It may also be necessary to consider caps on trade margins to rein in drug prices while ensuring reasonable returns to manufacturers and distributors. All therapeutic products should be covered and producers should be prevented from circumventing controls by creating nonstandard combinations. This would also discourage producers from moving away from controlled to non-controlled drugs. At the same time, it is necessary to strengthen Central and State regulatory agencies to effectively perform quality and price control functions.”

Types of drug price regulations in India:

  1. Cost based price control: e.g. as specified in the Drug Price Control Order 1995 (DPCO 95)
  2. Marked based price control: e.g. as was suggested by ‘The Pronab Sen Committee’ in 2005
  3. Price Monitoring with a cap on annual price increase: e.g. as is currently followed by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) for all products which are outside DPCO ’95

The weaknesses of cost based pricing mechanism:

The key criticism of cost based pricing mechanism flows from the following arguments:

  • This system is not followed by any developed or developing countries worth mentioning, which follow drug price control mechanism in any form
  • A Complex, intrusive and inefficient system of pricing medicines
  • Does not consider important variations in the level of GMP standards and the quality of input costs
  • The conversion cost and packing norms are determined through a sample survey of less than one per cent of pharmaceutical manufacturing units

Pronab Sen Committee report – the basis of price control in the draft NPPP 2011:

The draft NPPP 2011 is based on the ‘Recommendations of the Task Force constituted under the Chairmanship of Dr. Pronab Sen to explore issues beyond Price Control to make available Life-saving Drugs at reasonable prices’ to all.

‘Pronab Sen Committee’ suggested the following principles of Price regulation to achieve part of the above objective:

1.       The National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) should form the basis of drugs to be considered for intensive price monitoring, ceiling prices and for imposition of price controls, if necessary.

2.       The government should announce the ceiling price of the drugs contained in the NLEM (other than the drugs procured by hospitals directly and which an individual does not have to purchase from the market) on the basis of the weighted average prices of the top three brands by value of single ingredient formulations prevailing in the market as on 01.04.2005. In cases where there are less than three brands, the weighted average of all the existing brands would be taken. The Org–IMS data set can be used for this purpose initially with a 20 per cent retail margin provided. There is, however, a need to improve the available data coverage, which should be taken up with ORG-IMS or any other data provider.

3.       For drugs which are not reflected in ORG-IMS data, the NPPA should prepare the necessary information based on market data collection.

4.       During the transition period (i.e. till the time ceiling prices are fixed and notified) prices of all essential drugs may be frozen.

5.       The Government should specify the reference product in terms of strength and pack size for each product which would form the basis for price determination. The price ceiling would be specified on a per dosage basis, such as per tablet/per capsule or standard volume of injection. Where syrups and liquids are sold in bottles the ceiling price may be fixed on individual pack size.

6.       Price relaxations may be permitted for non-standard delivery systems, packaging and pack sizes through applications to the negotiations committee, which should become applicable for all similar cases.

7.       In the case of formulations which involve a combination of more than one drug in the NLEM, the ceiling price would be the weighted average of the applicable ceiling prices of its constituents.

8.       For formulations containing a combination of a drug in the NLEM and any other drug, the ceiling price applicable to the essential drug would be made applicable. However, the company would be free to approach the price negotiations committee for a relaxation of the price on the basis of evidence proving superior therapeutic effectiveness for particular disease conditions.

9.       In order to determine the reasonableness of the ceiling prices fixed as above, the prices quoted in bulk procurement by Government and other designated agencies may be examined for use, provided that the system of bulk procurement meets certain minimum prescribed standards. Recognizing that retail distribution has costs not reflected in bulk procurement, a markup of 100 per cent over this reference price is recommended.

10.    NPPA should set up a computer based system which would scan the price data provided by companies against the ceiling prices determined as above and identify formulations which breach the relevant price ceiling. The company manufacturing or marketing such a product would be required to reduce its price or to face penal action.

11.    Companies should be permitted to represent for any price increase on valid grounds, which should then become applicable to the entire class of products.

12.   The NLEM should be revised periodically, say every 5 years, in order to reflect new drugs and significant changes in pattern of drug sales within the therapeutic categories. However till the time the new list is finalized the existing list will continue to be valid for the purpose of price control.

13.   In the case of drugs not contained in the NLEM, intensive monitoring should be carried out of all drugs falling into a pre-specified list of therapeutic categories. Any significant variation in the prices (say above 10 per cent) would be identified for negotiation.

The stakeholders’ comments on NPPP 2011:

About 60 stakeholders have commented by now on the draft NPPP 2011. The views are quite divergent though. It is interesting to note that the new draft pricing policy, in its current form, has been rejected by all key stakeholders, like the Industry, Ministry of Health, Expert Groups, WHO, NGOs and reportedly even by the Economic Advisory Council of the Prime Minister, on quite different grounds.

As widely reported in the media, the pharmaceutical industry, though in favor of the marked based pricing  mechanism, feels that the draft NPPP 2011 will increase the span of drug price control to over 60 per cent of the Indian Pharmaceutical Market (IPM). This means over eight times increase in the span of price control from its current level, making the task unwieldy for even the NPPA.

Majority of other stakeholders including the Ministry of Health, on the contrary, are arguing in favor of cost based price control. They commented that the price control system of the draft policy would give legitimacy to high drug prices in India, leading to increase in the overall prices of medicines. This group feels that the top three brands in majority of cases will be the most expensive ones.

Two interesting observations by the World Health Organization (WHO) on ‘Trade Margin’:

The WHO  in their observations on the draft NPPP 2011 has made the following interesting comments:

  1. “The new price regulation uses a margin of16% to calculate the retail prices. This is a lower margin than currently – based on the market data 1.1 and 3.3 I calculated a current retail margin of 22%. So the new price regulation implies a margin reduction of 6%, alternatively the CP might be set at a 6% lower price than currently is the case.”

If the WHO observation is correct, there is a scope to reduce the price of essential medicines by 6 per cent only through proper regulation of the trade margin.

  1. WHO also comments that IMS data, the basis of all such calculations by the NPPA, has severe limitations as “Their data does not take into account the discounts, rebates and bundling deals and when the data is collected at the level of the wholesaler they estimate the retailer and patient prices”.

If such is the case, what could possibly be the basis of all calculations as captured in the draft NPPP 2011? 

Observation of a distinguished Parliamentarian: 

Dr. Jyoti Mirdha , a Member of the Lower House of the Parliament (Lok Sabha) commented as follows:

“Under this policy the weighted average of three top selling brands will be the ceiling price. There is no logic in restricting the formula to just three brands. Why not five? Why not 10 to arrive at a more representative and reasonable figure? Besides why base on sales figures? In any pricing policy the parameter should be the price. Why not weighted average of 10 least priced brands?”

This could well be a pertinent question.

How to break the logjam now?

Taking on from Dr. Mirdha’s argument , WHO observations and Pronab Sen Committee report, one could possibly try to resolve this logjam by exploring various other available alternatives like for example, the following broad points, to ascertain whether a win-win situation can be created for all through the new drug policy:

  1. What happens if ‘Weighted Average Price’ is calculated based on all brands, instead of top three or bottom three with some exclusion criteria, if required?
  2. When inclusion criteria for price control in the new draft NPPP 2011 is ‘essentiality’ of drugs, it sounds logical that price control should be restricted to National List of Essential Medicines 2011 (NLEM 2011). Only possible extension could perhaps be taking the entire molecule, instead of specified strengths of the same molecule.
  3. Enough non-price control checks and balances to be put in place to ensure proper availability of NLEM 2011 drugs to the common man and avoidance of any possible situation of shortages for such drugs.
  4. As commented by WHO, trade margin should be rationalized, the MRP needs to be reduced accordingly and the consequential benefits to be passed on to the patients.

Conclusion:

The issue of the new National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy should be resolved sooner than later and that too by conforming to the directive given by the Supreme Court on essential medicines. At the same time, all the stakeholders must feel comfortable with the new drug policy.

The four points, as mentioned above, are just an illustration for choosing an alternative solution. If it works, let us move on. If it does not, let us search for the pathfinder who can break the decade old labyrinth rather quickly, without losing the way yet again.

However, the bottom-line remains that the solution should be a win-win one, both for the patients and the industry alike, benefiting the healthcare space of the country in the years ahead.

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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