x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Nation's poor can't afford drugs, says health expert

Despite a recent decrease in prescription drug prices, an expert for the World Health Organisation says they are still not affordable for the UAE's poorer residents.

Many medicines are unaffordable to the country's poorer residents, despite a move by the Ministry of Health to cut prices for hundreds of prescription drugs, a world health expert says.

Margaret Ewen, who heads a medicine price database for the World Health Organisation (Who) and Health Action International, also questioned the Government's move to reduce the cost of branded drugs before cutting prices for generics.

"The UAE Government needs to focus on lowering the prices of generics so they are affordable for all, especially those on low wages, and implementing policies that ensure low-priced generics are prescribed and dispensed," Ms Ewen said after reviewing the new list of drug prices.

The price cuts on 498 branded drugs, which went into effect at the start of this month, are in addition to 67 reductions that were introduced on July 1.

The ministry is also in discussions with drug companies to reduce the price of hundreds of generic drugs, said Dr Amin Al Amiri, the assistant undersecretary of medical practice and licensing at the ministry .

Prices in this round of cuts were reduced by between 5 and 55 per cent, with most of them between 20 and 30 per cent.

"We have been working closely with pharmaceutical companies to bring costs down to lower levels," Dr Al Amiri said. "We want to provide pharmaceuticals of the best quality at the best prices."

In its most recent survey in 2006, which is cited in Who's current World Health Statistics report, researchers found branded drugs in private UAE pharmacies and non-government hospitals had cost on average more than 23 times the international recommended prices.

The prices of selected generic medicines sold in pharmacies were nearly 14 times the reference price, which is the average amount charged to developing countries on a non-profit basis.

Based on a daily wage of Dh15, which the Dubai Economic Council considers the lowest salary in the country, "many standard treatments with originator brands to treat common conditions are not affordable", Ms Ewen said.

About 15 days of those wages would be needed each month to buy Zocor 20mg tablets, which are used to treat high cholesterol.

About six days of those wages were needed each month to buy Renitec 10mg tablets for hypertension, and a course of Amoxil 500mg capsules to treat a respiratory infection would take four days' wages.

Based on an income of Dh80 a day, which the Dubai Economic Council considers the country's poverty line, commonly prescribed medicines would require several days of income, making affordability an issue, Ms Ewen said.

Although all companies in Abu Dhabi must provide health insurance for their workers, most unskilled and semi-skilled workers have only basic coverage that often does not cover the cost of prescriptions.

Officials at the Ministry of Health have argued the small population of the UAE, and therefore lower amount of products bought compared with other countries, has made it difficult to obtain competitive prices from drug makers.

Pharmacists said they were aware of the price cuts and were expecting visits from ministry representatives.

"There is an agent for every area who will visit and change the prices on the packets that we have, depending on the quantity in store," said Dr Haider Jawad, a pharmacist at Modern Al Falah Pharmacy in Dubai's Al Barsha neighbourhood.

Another pharmacist said the old stock would be repriced as new stock would already carry the new price tags.

"I was told by the purchase manager about the prices being reduced," said Ali Mirza, a pharmacist at Al Kausar pharmacy in Al Barsha.

"The ministry has sent a memo to suppliers with the new price list and the agents will come in and put new barcodes on the old stock."

Dr Al Amiri said he expected the changes at about 2,000 pharmacies across the Emirates would take time.

Some customers were divided about whether the new prices were affordable.

Youssef Abu Issa, 29, of Jordan, said he found the prices higher than in his home country.

"It is a good thing that they are being reduced," Mr Abu Issa said.

Milena Mokhnyova, 26, of Uzbekistan, agreed.

"It is a great thing that the price of medications are being reduced even if some people are covered by insurance," Ms Mokhnyova said.