Control medical inflation

It’s eating up patients’ financial resources
Control medical inflation
"In the given scenario, the sharp price rise is acting as a termite on the incomes and savings of the households, pushing them to the wall."Flickr [Creative Commons]

The devastation caused by the pandemic in every sector of the economy has been huge. Its impact derailed household budgets as millions have been rendered jobless and millions faced drastic cuts in their income stream.

These households have been left incapacitated to spend beyond essentials and continue to struggle to keep their kitchen budgets afloat in these virus-induced tiring times.

The exact estimation of the losses cannot be worked out as new virus variants continue to emerge on the scene, pushing the recovery efforts on the back-foot.

Even as the pandemic is primarily an extreme health emergency, it has simultaneously created a never-seen-before economic crisis. Among other economic upheavals, it’s the price control which has lost control.

During the two years of the ongoing pandemic, the prices of essentials and non-essentials have considerably gone up, leaving the households struggling even to catch hold of essentials.

In other words, rising inflation, uncertain income & employment prospects, and the spectre of medical emergencies due to the pandemic have become order of the day, bringing host of miseries to the households.

In the given scenario, the sharp price rise is acting as a termite on the incomes and savings of the households, pushing them to the wall.

Amid this scenario of uncontrolled price rise, among other things it’s the steep hike in cost of medicines which has direct bearing on the health of people. The cost of medicines is eating up a major portion of the domestic budgets and the impact has been devastating on people’s ability to obtain health care and pay for it.

There is evidence collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank revealing that the pandemic is likely to halt two decades of global progress towards Universal Health Coverage.

The evidence also reveals that already before the pandemic more than half a billion people were pushed or further pushed into extreme poverty because they have to pay for health services out of their own pockets, and that the pandemic is likely to make the situation worse.

To be precise, the evidence serves as a warning that growing poverty, falling incomes, and tighter fiscal constraints faced by the governments would be some of the major factors to make the financial hardships more intense in the coming times.

And the uncontrolled price rise of medicines will worsen the situation as there would be patients who would be condemned to death for their lack of financial resources to bear the cost of treatment.

For instance, the current pricing model of cancer drugs bears a huge question mark as far as its affordability is concerned. We have witnessed a significant change in the treatment protocol of cancer patients due to the emergence of several innovative therapies.

But the pricing of these therapies is so high that in most cases the treatment cost is higher than the annual income of the patients. And in this scenario, the patient is left with no option but to get consumed by the disease for want of treatment. It is increasingly difficult for people to pay for care.

A WHO report reveals that the burden of cancer is growing. In 2021, the world crossed a sobering new threshold – an estimated 20 million people were diagnosed with cancer, and 10 million died. These numbers, as per WHO predictions, will continue to rise in the decades ahead.

Even as you see the cost of the medicine plainly displayed on its cover, the actual cost price of the drug remains invisible. It’s wrapped in so many layers like maximum retail price (MRP) that almost no one understands what’s really happening.

The maximum retail price (MRP) printed on most of the drugs/ a healthcare article is already loaded with unbelievable margins ranging from 100 to 1000 percent!

Over the last few years, I’ve come across dozens of cancer patients struggling for want of finances and succumbing to the disease midway through the treatment protocol.

There are innumerable instances when the high cost of anti-cancer drugs consumed the life of a cancer patient more than the disease itself.

Every unit responsible for the pricing and distribution of anti-cancer drugs like stockists, retailers, carrying and forwarding agencies and other liaison agents are involved in the loot.

The daredevilry of the traders can be gauged from the fact that even those drugs, whose prices are ceiled as per the Drug Pricing Control Order (DPCO) decided by the National Pricing Pharmaceutical Authority, are being sold at two to ten times of the original cost whereas DPCO rules state that they cannot be sold at a profit margin of more than 16%.

Why are anti-cancer medicines so expensive at our place? An acquaintance dealing in pharma trade shared an interesting, but thought provoking point. ‘In our state contraceptives are tax free, while life-saving drugs are sleeved with multiple taxes.

Thus, making the drugs costly. Notably, many states in India have exempted anti-cancer drugs from the tax net. At our place (J&K) depressing instances galore when even a financially sound family had to sell-off their assets to meet treatment expenses. Any savings become the first casualty when it comes to availing healthcare facilities – be it diagnostic tests or purchase of medicines. Not only savings go, money is borrowed to foot the medical bills.

Think of the plight of a family whose monthly income is Rs20,000 and they have to shell out over Rs50,000 for medicines and for each round of chemotherapy and radiation of an ailing family member suffering from cancer! Under this scenario of the most exorbitant medical costs, the attitude of the majority of the ailing population here towards treatment for illness remains one of a fatalistic surrender to destiny.

Specifically speaking, it’s medical inflation that outpaces general inflation as medical expenses are sky high. Elaborate medical treatment expenses could eat into your savings meant for the future.

So your financial position strikes an imbalance. These financial imbalances, which are basically risks, need to be taken care of by managing them. A simple way of managing these risks is transfer of risks.

How to transfer the risk? Getting a health insurance cover seems to be an obvious choice. Basically, by taking an insurance policy, we transfer the risk, so that in case of any incident we are not at loss.

Health Insurance is an insurance against loss due to ill health or hospitalizations. It safeguards your savings from getting washed out in case of any unplanned illness, surgery or hospitalization and getting prepared for unexpected expenses.

Lastly, in the given modern treatment protocol, yet all cancers can be treated, and many can be prevented or cured. But what matters the most is the affordability of the treatment. The only way to help the patients afford the treatment is to make drastic cuts in taxes charged on such drugs.

The state government should make anti-cancer drugs affordable by reviewing tax mechanisms. Let all life-saving drugs be made tax-free as these are more important than contraceptives.

So what’s needed is that these skewed medicine price bites need special focus of the government to bring parity in costing of medicines. Otherwise, current pricing is only condemning patients to death.

Meanwhile, let’s hope the government comes out with strategies that would ensure affordable healthcare costs and a well guarded health portfolio across populations in the state.

These efforts will be in line with this year’s World Cancer Day 2022 theme: ‘Close the Care Gap’.

(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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