The Federation of Medical and Sales Representatives’ Associations of India (FMRAI) has told members of the Sansed (parliament) that pharmaceutical manufacturers are ignoring both statutory and voluntary price controls on medicines and increasing prices as they wish.

Last week, the Minister of Chemicals and Fertilisers, Ram Vilas Paswan, told the lower house (Lok Sabha) that the prices of the top 15 medicines which are not under price control had gone up 9.6% a year on average during 1994-2007, compared with an annual average rise of just 0.94% for drugs which are price-controlled.

However, leaders of the FMRAI, which represents more than 50,000 medical reps, told the legislators that the real increases for non-controlled drugs could be far greater. The prices of a number of widely-used medicines have gone up as much as 600% in the last nine years, with even anti-tuberculosis treatments increasing more than 500%, they said, adding that, while drugmakers cut the price of one brand, they simply raise the prices of others.

Nor has the National Prescription Pricing Authority (NPPA) been able to recover the overcharged amounts to any significant degree because of the court cases filed by drugmakers to stop it doing so, the FMRAI pointed out. Last month, the government was reportedly close to withdrawing the right of drugmakers to set their own prices for innovative new medicines, after the NPPA reported widespread abuse of this freedom and recommended that marketing approvals for new drugs should be granted only if the company accepts a price set by the Authority.

Row over union rights
Meantime, the FMRAI has also clashed bitterly with leading pharmaceutical industry organisations over their call to the government to ban medical reps from joining trade unions. Under the terms of the Industrial Disputes Act, drug reps should not be eligible for union membership because they are managers, not workers, and are well-paid, said the Indian Drug Manufacturers’ Association, the Organization of Pharmaceutical Producers of India and the Indian Pharmaceutical Alliance, in a petition which has the backing of the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

However, in October the Labour Ministry said that it was in fact considering adding a provision to the Act which would protect drug reps’ rights to seek union protection. Some observers comment that the industry petition is part of its continuing attempts to destroy the sector’s unions, some of which are very strong. These strategies are reported to have included giving reps the title of “territory managers,” thus making them ineligible to join a union, and attempting to persuade the state government of Maharashtra, where many large pharmaceutical companies operate, to exclude medical reps from the protections provided under the Maharashtra Recognition of Trade Unions and Prevention of Unfair Labour Practices Act. The unions hit back, claiming that such a move would lead to exploitation, and action on the bill has been put off until early 2008.