Cheaper medicine gives Mar a fighting chance

Wednesday, July 15, 2009
By Efren L. Danao
The Manila Times

Sen. Mar Roxas will make a great headway in his quest for the presidency once the Universally Accessible Cheaper and Quality Medicine Law is fully implemented and starts benefiting millions of sick Filipinos. I am certain that if Mar projects himself well on this issues, he could give early survey leaders Vice President Noli de Castro, Sen. Manny Villar, Sen. Chiz Escudero and former President Erap Estrada a stiff competition.

I admire the stick-to-itiveness of Mar on the implementation of what is popularly known as Cheaper Medicine Law. As far as I am concerned, this law is Mar’s baby and if it becomes a success, all of its beneficiaries will be more apt to vote for him in 2010. Sure, the House of Representatives had a lot of inputs at the bicameral conference committee but it was Mar that loomed large at the bicam.

Law is Mar’s baby

The House wanted to put a “generics only” provision in bicam. Mar put his foot down. It had also insisted on the creation of a Drug Price Regulatory Board. Mar claimed that this provision was part of a “last-ditch effort” by the drug cartel to derail the implementation of the Cheaper Medicine Act. He said it is difficult to pinpoint responsibility in a board that he predicted to be the dumping ground of “election losers and relatives of powerful politicians. The Senate version preferred to empower the Office of the President, through the recommendation of the Secretary of Health, to regulate drug prices with the setting of maximum retail price (MRP) for essential medicines. In both contentious issues, the House backtracked so the Senate version—or, should I say, Mar’s version—came out in the law signed by President Arroyo.

Mar was confident that the law as amended would lower drug prices. It provides for parallel importation to improve competition, and the strengthening of the Bureau of Food and Drugs so it can process the importation of quality drugs faster. In a complementary move, he sponsored the creation of a P1-billion special fund in the 2009 budget to jumpstart the implementation of the measure through the importation of quality drugs from India.

Parallel importation amends the Intellectual Property Code to enable the importation of patented drugs and allow generic manufacturers to test, register, produce drugs prior to the expiration of a patent, which is normally 20 years. BFAD will process importation by the private sector to determine the quality of the drugs and if they are checked by their country of origin.

Of course, there are warnings that the law might turn out to be a dud, just like the Electric Power Industry Reform Act that has failed to deliver the promised lower power rates and increased competition. Will it go the way of the EPIRA? Well, not if Mar can have his way. And that is why he is looking at all the nuts and bolts in the law’s implementation. This he does as co-chairman with Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez of the Quality Affordable Medicine Oversight Committee.

No reason to smile?

So far, Mar is grousing over the slow approval by Malacañang of the MRP for 22 essential medicines consisting of drugs to treat hypertension, diabetes, asthma and cancer, as well as antibiotics drugs. The MRP would cut the price of the medicines by 50 percent. Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd submitted the list last June 10 for President Arroyo’s approval. The President met with leaders of drug firms in Malacañang on July 8 to hear their proposals on the proposed MRP. The President reportedly gave the drug firms 10 days to or until July 18 to voluntarily cut their prices by 50 percent or else she would sign the EO on the MRP.

If there is one thing that I would fault Mar, it is his over-zealousness. For the life of me, I could not understand why he invited President Arroyo to the July 13 hearing of the oversight committee to shed light on the July 8 meeting in Malacañang. He could have gotten the needed information from Cabinet members or officials of drug firms who attended the meeting. No President had ever been invited to a committee hearing. A President appears before Congress merely to deliver the annual State of the Nation Address! I was not surprised at all when none of the executive officials invited attended the hearing.

I believe that Mar’s unprecedented move inviting the President to testify is merely meant to gain him more media mileage. I hope he will stop such cheap shots or gimmicks for they demean his avowed noble aim.

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