Friday, December 21, 2007

Cheaper meds battle shifts to bicam

By Christian V. Esguerra
Philippine Daily Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines -- With half of the job done, House members are gearing up for a much tougher fight at the bicameral conference committee over the much-awaited bill promising cheaper medicines for poor Filipinos.

Iloilo Representative Ferjenel Biron, principal author of House Bill 2844, on Thursday said he was expecting a clash between his group and its Senate counterpart over a provision in the House version requiring the establishment of a drug price regulatory board.

The board will be tasked to establish price ceilings on medicines based on factors such as retail prices of similar drugs abroad, currency exchange rates, and the cost of production and labor.

The bill prescribes that “no retailer may sell drugs or medicines at a retail price exceeding the maximum retail price fixed by the board.”

Biron said the House contingent could not strike a compromise with the Senate which wanted the provision dropped from the reconciled version of the measure.

At most, he said congressmen would be willing to place a time cap for the duration of the regulatory board to allow both chambers to assess if the strategy actually made drug prices more affordable.

Biron said the House panel would be open to a time frame of perhaps two years, with a condition that the bill be fine-tuned before the 14th Congress ends in 2010.

“Beyond this, the provision cannot be bargained [away],” he said.

“We need a drug price regulatory board if we really want to bring down the prices of medicines in our country. We can’t give our people false hopes,” Biron said.

Unfortunately for Biron and company, Senator Mar Roxas, the author of the Senate version of the bill, is strongly opposed to a regulatory board.

Roxas, a former trade secretary and investment banker, argues that the idea of a price regulatory board goes against the spirit of free enterprise besides opening the process to intense lobbying and manipulation.

The two chambers clashed over the same issue during a “pre-bicam” toward the end of the previous Congress. Roxas was implacable and only sent representatives to deal with his counterparts.

Roxas is again heading the Senate panel this time.

The House team will be composed of Representative Antonio Alvarez, chair of the committee on trade and industry, Minority Leader Ronaldo Zamora, Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros, Rep. Janette Garin, Representative Edcel Lagman, Representative Jack Duavit, Representative Junie Cua, Representative Teodoro Locsin Jr., and Biron.

As provided by HB 2844, the board will be headed by the health secretary or by his designated undersecretary, with the trade secretary as vice chair.

Members will include the head of the Bureau of Food and Drugs, the president of the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., a faculty member of a health sciences school, and two representatives from the consumers’ sector.

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