Drug prices soar, again

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Drug prices soared last month, dealing yet another blow to poor patients.

According to the Vietnam Pharmaceutical Production and Business Association, 21 out of 60 surveyed pharmacies increased the prices on certain products in August. In Hanoi, nine locally-made drugs saw an average hike of 5.7 percent, while some drugs in Ho Chi Minh City saw a price increase of 5 percent.

Prices for 19 imported drugs included in the survey rose by 4.8 percent.

The association predicted that drug prices will continue to rise due to the impacts of the recent devaluation of the dong. The State Bank of Vietnam devalued the dong's midpoint by 2 percent against the dollar in August.

Nguyen Thi Hanh, a drugstore clerk on Dinh Cong Street of Hanoi, said some distributors have reportedly increased their prices for items including antibiotics, vitamins and tonics by 5-10 percent.

Some consumers are finding the increase to be a rather cruel reality.

Nguyen Thi Huyen spoke to Thanh Nien Weekly while shopping at a chemist's in Hanoi.

Her daughter is suffering from pneumonia, she said, as she handed over more than VND600,000 for some medicines. She said that the expenditure is equal to nearly half of her monthly income from trading vegetables on a street-side market on Minh Khai Street.

"Medicines are getting more and more expensive," Huyen said.

Patients being treated at hospitals, where the drugs are most expensive, will suffer an even bigger burden.

Nguyen Duc Thu, an official at the National Assembly's Office, said even though drug supply contracts at hospitals have gone through a bidding process, many medicines are sold for 150 to 300 percent higher than their suggested retail price.

Ta Van Bang, another Vietnam Social Insurance official, said generic drugs are cheaper but many hospitals persist in selling the most expensive brands.

Heavy dependence on imports

Vietnam's pharmaceutical market is expected to experience annual growth of 25 percent, on average, and hit US$2 billion by 2012, according to the Administration of Drug Management. The average Vietnamese consumer spent $19.77 on drugs in 2009 compared to $16.45 in 2008.

However, investment in Vietnam's pharmaceutical production sector remains small. Thirty-nine pharmaceutical production projects funded by foreign entities have t aken root in Vietnam, of which 26 have come into operation, with registered capital of $302.6 million, said Deputy Minister of Health Cao Minh Quang.

None of these projects relate to material production which, administration officials said, are mostly imported.

Domestic companies mainly produce medicines for common ailments, while specialized items like antiviral and cancer drugs are mostly imported.

Vietnam spent $828 million on importing pharmaceutical products in the first eight months of 2010, a year-on-year increase of 17.5 percent, according to the General Statistics Office.

Experts said the state should offer more preferential treatment to pharmaceutical firms to encourage them to pour more investment into the sector.

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