Health officials in the Philippines have been examining drugmakers’ proposed price cuts on 21 essential drugs over the weekend, and will announce today whether or not these are acceptable, a government spokeswoman has said.

The “voluntary compliance” lists were submitted by the drug firms on Friday, one day ahead of the deadline set by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. If the Department of Health (DoH) and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) find them acceptable, implementing the reductions will be “easy.” If not, the President will issue an Executive Order (EO) that will reduce the drugs’ prices, Presidential aide Lorelei Fajardo is reported as saying.

But opposition Senators have again criticised the delay in issuing the EO which would set Maximum Retail Price (MRP) ceilings on essential drugs, cutting their present levels by about 50%. because of the opportunity it gives drugmakers to make further profits.

“The 500 million pesos in discounts allegedly offered by a drug firm may be peanuts compared to the profits earned by the pharmaceutical companies because of the delay in the issuance of the executive order,” said Senator Francis Escudero, chairman of the Senate constitutional amendments committee.

Pres Arroyo’s aides have acknowledged that the government would prefer to adopt the companies’ “voluntary compliance” price reductions rather than imposing the EO, because price controls could harm investment prospects in the country.

However, Dr Robert Louie So, program manager of the Department of Health's drug policy unit, has dismissed these concerns, saying that prices would not be completely controlled and the move would create a fair and competitive market. At present, drug prices in the Philippines are far higher than in neighbouring countries, putting them out of reach for poorer people, he said, adding that the price cuts could even increase the number of products on the market.

The drugs covered by the industry’s voluntary compliance list are: the antihypertensives amlopidine, telmisartan and irbesartan, the antithrombotic clopidogrel; cholesterol-lowerer atorvastatin; diabetes treament gliclazide; antibiotics piperacillin + tazobactam, ciprofloxacin, azithromycin, metronidazole and co-amoxiclave; and cancer treatments bleomycin, carboplatin, cisplatin, cyclophosphamide, cytarabine, doxorubicin, etoposide, mercaptopurine, methotrexate sodium and mesna.

More attacks on Pfizer

Meantime Pfizer, which was earlier this month accused of trying to bribe the government with its “Sulit” (“worth the money”) discount cards for its products, has come under further attacks for allegedly offering promotional posters of Pres Arroyo and Health Secretary Francisco Duque in exchange for not implementing sections of last year’s Cheaper Medicines Law.

The alleged offer could make Pfizer liable for prosecution under both Philippines law and the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, said opposition Akbayan politician Representative Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel.

However, Pfizer says that the posters were in fact health information materials to be used in government hospitals, clinics and community centres as part of an initiative which the company proposed to run with the DoH offering a “comprehensive patient care program with two components- discounts on medicines and patient education.” It planned to add a slogan from the DoH to permit the participation of other stakeholders in the Department programmes, and that was why the posters included a photograph of Health Secretary Duque as head of the sponsoring government agency and, “as is usual for DoH’s programmes, with the photo of the President likewise included,” the firm said.

“It is unfortunate that Pfizer’s intention to join the government’s efforts to improve healthcare in the Philippines was again misinterpreted. Notwithstanding, Pfizer will continue its efforts to find solutions through constructive engagement with all stakeholders,” the firm said.

Meantime, Pfizer has entered an agreement with the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS), which will allow the agency’s 1.5 million employees and pensioners to obtain Pfizer medicines at large discounts for one year.

GISI’s medical director Angel Concepcion said the deal was agreed with Pfizer “because they approached us,” and that the agency, while it cannot approach drug companies, is open to discussing similar deals with other firms.