Who’s making the most from the drug deals?
Ireland has the highest prices for nine out of 13 commonly used generic medicines compared to other European countries
Can someone really fly to Barcelona, stay in a four-star hotel for three nights and buy a year’s supply of a commonly prescribed drug off La Rambla for less than the cost of the prescription in the Republic? Yes, mad as that may sound, they absolutely can.
The chemical used to relieve the symptoms of reflux is called omeprazole and one of the most popular brands of it in the Republic is Losec, which costs about €35 for a month’s supply. That is €420 annually, to which a patient will have to add the cost of two GP visits, taking the price of this fairly basic treatment to €540.
In Spain, omeprazole sells as Pensa, and a month’s supply costs €3.50, or a year’s supply €42 – €500 blow the cost of the treatment here.
Further afield you can make equally impressive savings. If you need to take blood-thinning low-dose aspirin in the Republic you will pay about a fiver a month, plus €120 a year on two visits to the GP to get your script renewed. That’s €180 a year. You can find 500 identical low-dose aspirin, or 18 months’ supply, selling in the US for under €10. A thousand pain-killing Ibuprofen will cost you €10 in New York.
And you don’t have to travel so far to make big savings on everyday drugs. People living in Dundalk are routinely asked to pay over 300 per cent more for medicines than people living 10 miles away in Newry. Earlier this year this newspaper reported that one regular customer of a pharmacy in the North was able to save himself about €1,300 a year on the cost of four generic drugs by travelling to Newry from Munster. And another reader contacted us recently to say he was saving more than €500 a year by getting drugs for high blood pressure and reflux in Newry, not Dublin, despite the fact the drugs are made in Cork.
Why is this happening? Who is to blame for this crazy state of affairs? The State which has done deals on pricing with the drug-makers? The regulator who decides what drugs need a prescription – and a GP visit every six months as a result – and what ones can be bought over the counter? Those GPS who give us scripts for the most expensive drugs? The pharma companies who invent the drugs? Or the companies who piggyback on those inventions once they go off patent?
Or maybe the finger should be pointed at those on the frontline – the pharmacists who are allowed mark-ups of up to 50 per cent, as well as dispensing fees that seem out of line with the actual work involved?
Benefitting from consumer confusion
The answer is probably all of the above. The way prices of prescription and over-the-counter drugs are arrived at is hideously complicated and it is easy to get confused.
Those who benefit most from consumer confusion are the manufacturers and the sellers of the drugs who can make us pay dearly for our befuddlement.
When it comes to some pricing, however, the fog of confusion lifts and all that is left is a sense that the sick in the Republic are being taken for a ride.