fizer has denied claims that its offer to the Philippines government of 50% discounts on the prices of some of its products for 5 million patients was “tantamount to bribery.”

Addressing a Senate hearing yesterday, held to examine why implementation of the Cheaper Medicines Law has been delayed, with allegations of a “secret deal” between President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and leading drugmakers to head off price cuts, Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile said that the purpose of Pfizer’s offer was “to thwart, stop, and impede the enforcement of the law.”

Mr Enrile added that he was “giving the industry a chance to explain to the people of this country who probably have the same impression that this company, Pfizer, can afford to offer five million cards the value of which can be 100 million pesos or even more,” so: “how can they not afford to lower the prices of medicines?”

With Congress having already passed the Cheaper Medicines Law, the offer of the cards was an attempt to impede enforcement of the law, said Mr Enrile, adding: “I will tell you as a lawyer…that is as an offer of bribe.”

Pfizer Philippines, which did not send a representative to the hearing, responded in a statement that its Sulit Patient Care Programme, which offers the 50% discounts, has helped 1.8 million Filipino patients “live longer, healthier lives in partnership with the medical community” over the past five years.

The Sulit (discount) programme was also defended by Reiner Gloor, executive director of the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), who told the Senate panel that the offer could have been simply a business move, or an attempt to increase market competition. In any case, he added, the company had made the offer before the Department of Health began to draw up its list of widely-prescribed drugs on which price ceilings should apply. It had not been accepted by either Pres Arroyo or Health Secretary Francisco Duque.

However, Mr Gloor also told the legislators that Pfizer was no longer a member of the PHAP, as a result of “irreconcilable differences.”

Senator Manuel Roxas, co-chairman of the Congress’ Quality Affordable Medicines Oversight Committee, had called for Pres Arroyo and Cabinet members including Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita and Deputy Executive Secretary Joaquin Lagonera to attend the hearing, but as it began the legislators received a message from Mr Ermita stating that their appearance would not be possible because the Office of the President had only received the request on July 10.

Therefore, he said, "there was no sufficient time for the invitees to adequately and properly prepare for the hearing; thus, they could not attend, neither their representative.

Sen Roxas responded the Office had received the request on July 9.

Mr Duque and Trade Secretary Peter Favila had also initially agreed to attend the hearing, but the panel heard that they had been told not to attend until they received “clearance” to do so.

A letter from Pfizer Philippines also apologized for the firm’s “unavoidable absence at this public hearing” which was due, it said, to prior appointments which could not be rescheduled.

However, Augusto Villanueva, general manager of Roche Philippines, did attend the hearing, and told the panel that Pfizer had arranged a meeting with Mr Ermita and Mr Aquino on July 2 to discuss alternatives to lowering the prices of the 22 medicines. Also, Pres Arroyo had also met with industry representatives on July 8.

Pres Arroyo has told the companies to come up with a proposal to bring down the prices of the most widely-prescribed medicines by July 18.