EDITORIAL: Now that pharmacies have been caught charging up to five times more than the maximum retail price (MRP) for medicines, in Karachi this time, hopefully the matter will not end with Drap (Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan) notifying the government and the health minister fuming all over the headlines.
Drug pricing has been a recurring problem for the last two years, at least, with pharmaceutical companies pleading for permission to raise prices as production costs skyrocketed because of the collapsing rupee and commodity super cycle in the international market.
Yet, repeatedly, the government shot down such proposals, with very few exceptions, largely because of optics tied to politics as the general election loomed on the horizon. As a result, medicines naturally started disappearing from the shelf and, in some cases, being replaced by counterfeit drugs. At one point it seemed that the government realised having made the wrong choice between expensive but readily available medicines and cheap but hard-to-find ones.
But even in its last days the previous PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) administration left this matter unaddressed and then the caretaker government, which is not supposed to have any political stakes, did not take it forward either. And so, we go round in circles.
So far, all Health Minister Dr Nadeem Jan has had to say is that “after taking charge of the ministry, I had directed Drap to take action against those involved in selling drugs in the black market. It will ensure that quality of drugs does not suffer and they are sold within the MRP [minimum retail price] set by the government”.
Yet the fact that MRP is still being so blatantly violated shows that Drap preferred to stay asleep at the wheel. And also, that “quality of drugs” available in the market is still a big enough concern to rattle the health ministry.
We’re told that “raids are being conducted on warehouses of wholesalers, distributors, pharmacies and medical stores”, and that “legal action has been initiated against owners of medical stores selling medicines at higher than government-approved rates”.
But we’ve come this far before and never seen the kind of action that ensures such open violation of the law does not occur again. The news from Karachi comes on the heels of (reportedly) a similar crackdown in Lahore, where stores were over-charging for medicines of tuberculosis, epilepsy, cancer and other life-saving drugs.
No doubt the government understands that this is not just a matter of mispricing – which is bad enough on its own – but it can be a precursor to a much bigger social and health disaster because price manipulation at the retail level deprives thousands, perhaps millions, of people of essential, life-saving drugs.
That means lack of appropriate action against this criminal behaviour amounts to criminal negligence on the part of relevant authorities. And if the state is having such a hard time sorting out price irregularities, how will Drap ever be made to pay for its dereliction of duty?
It is unfortunate that successive administrations have badly mishandled the problems faced by the pharmaceutical sector. Spirited talk of upgrading it into a major export earner, especially in the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government’s days, now seems like a dream allowed to go sour.
Experts suggested that the government follow successful examples from neighbouring countries like India and Bangladesh, where the state keeps control on prices of essential drugs but lets the market decide about the rest, but all sorts of advice from all corners fell on deaf ears.
And the people, as always, have to pay for the ignorance, corruption and policy blunders of the people and parties in power.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023