Like a consuming fire

By Modesto P. Sa-onoy

President Rodrigo Duterte last week vowed to sign a proposed executive order that would lower the prices of more than 100 life-saving medicines, saying it would benefit the public. This was already news last year, but nothing had happened although from the people’s perspective such a measure would relieve them of one of the main reasons for suffering both for the patient and the family and of death.

The high cost of pharmaceuticals has forced many people to resort to herbal medicine that doctors discourage as “unsafe” or more deleterious to health. The rise in radio and television advertisements and commentators parading the effectiveness of herbal medicines for almost all illnesses, from coughing to cancer of all sorts attest to the profitability of these “natural” methods of healing.

This is not to discourage people from using herbals because I am an advocate of natural healing power that God has endowed in many plants but only to show that the trend is a sign that the cost of manufactured medicines has reached a point that people are left in despair.

The reason for this phenomenon is that the Philippines has one of the highly-priced medicines in the Asia Pacific region, if not the world. The greed of pharmaceutical companies and pharmacies are like a consuming fire that cannot have enough of profit.

Several years ago, I was in India and I purchased a capsule of medicine at P5. The price I paid for the same medicine and brand in Bacolod was P29 per capsule. A few years later, my former student who was working in New Delhi asked the name of my maintenance medicine, as she was going to buy for me as a gift when she came home. She bought the medicine for P12 per capsule when that same medicine, brand and all, was P65 here.

Last year a close friend who is in the pharmacy business told me he was going to India and when he came home told me that the price of the same medicine of the same brand in the Philippines is up to 1000% compared to that in India. I am certain our government, especially the Department of Health is not unaware of these price discrepancies.

The health department was reported late last year as pushing for an EO that would cut the prices of 122 drugs by half, noting that Filipinos are spending more for medicines compared to their neighbors in the region. DOH also said that the pharmaceutical companies support the move.

Drugs that may be covered by the price regulation include those that treat cancer, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, neonatal and chronic lung diseases.

Last week, President Duterte was reported saying he would immediately sign that EO even at night when he finds that draft on his desk, but he said there was no EO.

How long would it take for the DOH to prepare the EO? I am certain it would not take a week if DOH had the sincerity to reduce the prices. But I suspect there is a change of mind, though I would be happy if this feeling is not true.

A friend in the industry once told me that one reason for the high prices of medicine is the cost of sales, not royalties to the manufacturers. Indeed, drug salespersons get high commissions and doctors get a lot of perks – travel expenses abroad and conferences, for instance, for prescribing a specific brand of medicine.

We do not begrudge that if only the cost of these freebies was not too much as to make the price of medicine prohibited. We know that medicine can mean life or death. It pained me once to hear an old woman say she could buy only one pill at a time because that is what she could afford.

When a fire consumes, it leaves nothing but worthless ashes. When medicine is denied, life ends while the pharmaceuticals have plenty to enjoy.

If the DOH is sincere it should immediately draft that EO unless they have compromised with pharmaceutical company lobby to either delay it or relegate that into the realm of “what could have been”. We hope not and this can only be proven if that EO was signed.