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Our View: Whether the government acts on WHO report remains to be seen

DID WE need a report by the World Health Organisation to learn that prices we are paying for medicine were among the highest in the world? Of course not. There have been many reports comparing Cyprus drug prices with those of other countries and these showed that we were paying extortionate prices for medicines, is some cases twice as high. Only two months ago a report by the Auditor-General censured the drugs prices committee for failing to adjust its pricing system in 2009, with the result that we wasted millions on overpriced drugs.

The WHO report, commissioned by the government, would be useful only if it forced the authorities to tackle the high prices. Perhaps it would give the government the ammunition to take on the vested interests – importers, pharmacies, doctors, civil servants – who have been benefitting financially from ripping off people for decades.

Reports about the high prices, often publicised by the media, have been ignored by the political parties despite their alleged commitment to protecting citizens from greed and profiteering. At least the commissioning of the WHO report showed a theoretical intention to tackle the problem by the government.

Whether it acts remains to be seen. The report acknowledged that it may take several years before all the necessary changes were made. It is not easy to reform a system designed to maximise the profits of certain groups at the expense of the rest of the population. The fact that the law stipulates a mark-up of 37% on all drug prices, which goes to pharmacies, is scandalous. Even generic drugs, a cheaper alternative to branded drugs, were overpriced, noted the report.

One of the most interesting points made was that in 2011, that 50.5% of the €211.3 million spent on drugs was spent in the private sector which accounted for only 20% of the population. It is an astonishing figure, leading WHO to conclude that private doctors were over-prescribing expensive drugs. They had an incentive to do so because it is a common secret that many receive commission from the importers, the cost of which is, no doubt, included in the price. The report implied that private doctors did as they pleased, because there were no mechanisms in place to monitor the prescribing decisions of doctors and impose penalties. “It is essential to break the financial relationships between physicians and Pharmaceutical manufacturers or the pharmaceutical supply chain,” said the report.

This and much more must be done, if the hapless consumers of Cyprus are to cease paying for their drugs in gold. Whether this government would have the gumption to take on all the vested interests that have been ripping off people for decades, is another matter.

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