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Long goodbye to cheap healthcare

Compelling the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) to withdraw its power to cap the prices of non-essential drugs is a huge setback for dreams of affordable and inclusive healthcare for all in this country. The union government’s move to unfetter the predatory limbs of pharmaceutical retail sector, some domestic but mostly Western, particularly American, is a blow to millions of poor Indians who breathed a sigh of relief when the 29 May guideline expanded NPPA’s hold through an interpretation of a provision in the Drugs Price Control Order (DPCO) 2013.

The drug price regulator has been batting for the underprivileged and hundreds of millions who still haven’t benefited from cutting edge developments in medicine, which remain out of bounds and shrouded in a veil of exorbitant cost. Among a number of orders that the NPPA passed, price-capping 108 anti-diabetes and cardiovascular drugs was an important step towards ensuring the lower income groups afflicted with heart diseases get a fair chance of recovery.

In fact, NPPA’s powers were within the interpretative universe of the landmark Novartis judgement passed by the Supreme Court in April 2013 that disallowed cumulative patenting of life-saving drugs by private pharmaceutical companies. So even though withdrawing NPPA’s powers to control drug prices has been paraded as helping the domestic pharma companies, such as Ranbaxy, GSK, Sanofi and Abbott, it is basically a warmup signal to US-based giant transnational drug companies, especially those under the rubric of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA).

Moreover, even though the price control order impacted about seven per cent of the Rs 75,000-crore retail pharma market, the regulatory thrust was aimed at expanding the horizon of access to essential and non-essential drugs, crucial to fighting the healthcare battle.

The significant blip in the latest move by the union government to clip the wings of NPPA happens to be the fact that it comes barely days ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first official US visit and the state honour accorded to him by the White House administration.

The red carpet notwithstanding, it seems America is hell bent to extract its pound of flesh, and is trying to recover the lost ground that US-driven Big Pharma had conceded in the wake of the Novartis judgement.

The PhRMA, which includes Pfizer, Merck, Sanofi as well as Novartis, has been pushing to inflate the dominion of intellectual property rights and impose ever more threatening regimes of patents and copyrights of life-saving medicines related to cancer, AIDS, hepatitis and other serious, often incurable, ailments. Hence, even though the latest move directly makes null and void NPPA’s hitherto right to bring drugs extraneous to India’s list of essential medicines under price control, it will only benefit the majority of foreign companies in the pharma retail that made a hue and cry about
regulating drug prices.  
     

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