Ministry excuses for failure to control drug prices rejected

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The Health Ministry has come under sharp criticism for its failure to effectively manage prices of essential drugs and impose policy restrictions over their promotions.

At a meeting of the National Assembly's Standing Committee on the issue on Monday (October 18), legislators were skeptical of the ministry's claims that it was not possible to regulate drug prices.

"Is it impossible to manage medicine prices?" asked deputy Dang Nhu Loi, Vice Chairman of the National Assembly's Social Affairs Committee.

"Medicine is an essential commodity required to follow the Ordinance on Prices and the Law on Commodity Quality and Monitoring Production Costs. It cannot be [sold at] any price like the Ministry of Health says," he said.

Deputy Trinh Thi Le Tam said the ministry has failed to announce maximum medicine prices periodically as regulated.

"We conducted a survey and found that the Philippines, which has similar conditions to Vietnam, has managed to announce maximum medicine prices. Announcing maximum prices for medicine is difficult but not impossible. Why did the Medicine Law, issued five years ago, fail to impose this regulation?" she asked.

Deputy Minister of Health Cao Minh Quang said it was impossible to issue a regulation that requires importers to report prices of each medicine in other countries having similar healthcare and trading conditions to Vietnam. He said long term scientific research was needed to identify such similarities.

The ministry has coordinated with Vietnamese commercial services in other countries to have an overview of price differences in countries but it offered limited results, he said.

He also said it was impossible to issue maximum prices for each medicine because the same medicine by different brands could contain different elements.

"Instead, we will issue regulations on maximum wholesale margins based on importing prices," he said.

Legislators also called for regulations on promotion campaigns and activities that pharmaceutical companies engage in, pointing to several cases where huge commissions were paid to doctors for prescribing a company's products.

Truong Thi Mai, chair of the NA's Social Affairs Committee, said the Ministry of Industry and Trade should issue regulations on the promotion of medicines. She also recommended that the Ministry of Health review and make recommendations on amending the Law on Medicines, including regulations on maximum trading margins and on the bidding process used by hospitals to buy drugs.

Deputy Health Minister Quang agreed that there should be regulations covering the promotion of medicines because existing ones that cover all commodities allow promotions of up to 50 percent of the prices.

Local media and critics have long alleged that backroom deals between drug manufacturers and hospitals have resulted in doctors prescribing drugs that patients don't need in exchange for kickbacks.

Legislators have also found that public hospitals have purchased pharmaceuticals, particularly imported drugs, at 150 to 300 percent mark-ups which patients have to ultimately bear.

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