Paying for medicine


One year after the introduction of legislation aimed at reducing the price of generic medications in the Republic, the cost of many prescribed drugs remains stubbornly high here compared with elsewhere in the EU. For example, it has emerged that in the case of olanzapine, a drug used in the treatment of serious psychiatric conditions, there is a differential of up to €50 per packet of 28 tablets between what the Health Service Executive (HSE) pays the manufacturer and the price paid by the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain. Asthma medication is up to four times more expensive here according to the Asthma Society, with many patients travelling outside the State to access inhalers and other drugs at a reduced cost. And generic breast cancer medication can be 10 times more expensive here than in the UK.

Last June, the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act 2013 introduced a system of generic substitution and reference pricing for drugs with the express purpose of reducing prices. Reference pricing involves the setting of a common reimbursement or reference price for a group of interchangeable medicines, enabling the pharmacist to substitute a less expensive generic version of a prescribed drug. To date, some 20 of the most expensive and commonly prescribed medicines have been referenced by the HSE, which expects the new legislation to save the taxpayer €50 million in 2014 alone.

Despite some welcome price reductions, it has emerged that Irish taxpayers are paying up to 25 times more for this basket of drugs compared to their peers in Britain. Atorvastatin, a popular cholesterol-lowering drug, and one of the first to be targeted for savings under the legislation, still costs the HSE over three times more than the price paid by the NHS. There is a lingering suspicion that the pharmaceutical industry, where 25,000 people are employed, may be using its economic muscle to pressurise the Government on this issue. The public deserves greater transparency.

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