POSTSCRIPT / June 10, 2007 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Lobby kills House bill for low-cost medicines

NO QUORUM: The failure of the House of Representatives to pass its version of the Cheaper Medicine Bill — for lack of quorum — does not speak well of the expensive (to taxpayers) leadership of Speaker Jose de Venecia.

Despite the hundreds of millions that De Venecia ladles out to congressmen, he was not able to muster a quorum for the crucial last days of the outgoing 13 th Congress. (But they were there earlier to approve the franchise of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp.)

The absence of most of the congressmen also demonstrated once again how pervasive has been the lobby of pharmaceutical firms blocking the entry of inexpensive medicines to perpetuate their stranglehold on Filipino patients.

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WRONG EXCUSE: A disappointed Sen. Mar Roxas, who had shepherded the Senate version to approval, said the House failure to pass it “had nothing to do with any claimed conflict between the Senate version that WE PASSED and the House version that THEY DID NOT PASS.”

He said: “It is ridiculous for some congressmen, whose House failed the Filipino people, to argue about the merits of a law that their negligence and lack of will doomed to non-passage.

“It is an insult to Filipino patients, suffering from the heavy burden of high cost of medicines, for their congressmen to argue that their version which they did not pass could lower the prices more than the version that the Senate actually passed.”

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CHA-CHA AGAIN: There was no need to bring up the dead subject at this time, but an out-of-sync De Venecia suddenly revived the moribund campaign to amend the Constitution to shift from the two-chamber legislature to a unicameral parliamentary system.

The widespread impression is that De Venecia, his political sunset in the horizon, sees a parliamentary shift as his remaining card to stay in power and possibly emerge as head of government as Prime Minister.

He bared his political soul when he announced his determination to push for Cha-cha (Charter change) during the centennial celebration last Thursday of the House of Representatives. The gathering was also addressed by President Gloria Arroyo.

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TWO TUNES: Although “allies,” the President and the Speaker were singing dissonant tunes. Ms Arroyo appealed for reconciliation and unity to heal the wounds inflicted by “divisiveness and recriminations,” but De Venecia resurrected the causes of the disunity and acrimony that she was lamenting.

Seeing the opening, supporters of Cebu Rep. Pablo Garcia — who is gunning for the Speakership — accused De Venecia of sacrificing unity and progress to pursue his “obsession” to be the first Prime Minister in the country’s history.

The KAMPI (Kabalikat ng Malayang Pilipino), a political party allied to the President, supports Garcia as Speaker in the incoming 14 th Congress. Pressing congressional reforms, Kampi members are now saying “Chamber change, not Charter change!”

Kampi congressmen Jose Solis of Sorsogon, Antonio Cuenco of Cebu and Luis Villafuerte of Camarines Sur pointed out that Cha-cha had caused much harm to the Arroyo administration and the country, contributing to the poor performance of the administration’s Team Unity senatorial ticket.

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CONFUSED: Kampi members asked why no less than their party chairman, Interior and Local Governments Secretary Ronaldo Puno, has been supporting De Venecia who comes from another party (Lakas). Puno reportedly did not even consult his partymates.

In contrast, they pointed out, Villafuerte the Kampi president is leading the move to install Garcia as Speaker to introduce what they said were “necessary reforms” in the House.

It does not help any that President Arroyo has been claiming to be neutral — not only because both Garcia and De Venecia are her allies, but also because the President is expected not to interfere in the internal affairs of the House.

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COSTLY DRUGS: The Philippines has the highest cost of medicines in Asia, second only to Japan. The Department of Health “Pharma 50” program reports that medicine prices are higher by 40 to 70 percent compared to those of other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Although half of the over 80 million population has no access to essential medicines, drug spending averaged $1.1 billion from 1997 to 2001, the highest in ASEAN.

At least 15 million Filipinos have no access to affordable medicines. For those with access, their budget for health-related expenses, not just for medicines, is just P2,000 per person per year.

The Department of Trade and Industry, starting with then Secretary Mar Roxas, initiated the importation of low-cost essential medicines, but the government budget for it has been too small to procure sufficient quantities.

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COMPARE: Samples of high-priced medicines:

Norvasc, a medicine for hypertension, is priced at P41.41 per tablet, instead of a possible cost of only P5.77 per 5-mg tablet.

Plendil, also for hypertension, costs P21.82 a piece while it can be bought for only P2.69 in India. Data show that hypertension is the fifth leading cause of death in the Philippines. In 2004, it claimed over 300,000 lives.

One out of every five adults, or roughly 7.76 million Filipinos, suffer from high blood pressure, according to the Philippine Heart Association.

Government records show that asthma affects 12 to 15 percent of the population. To patients, the cost of a Ventolin inhaler is P315 each, while it could be bought for only P126.78 in India.

Bactrim 400, priced at P17.75 per tablet, sells for the equivalent of P1 in Pakistan and P0.69 in India. The price of Ponstan, for headaches and body aches, is P24.82 each, while it can be bought for only P3.22 each in India.

At least 60 percent of the P85-billion pharmaceutical market is controlled by multinational companies.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 10, 2007)

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