The exorbitant prices of a large number of medicines bought from retail pharmacies are causing consternation and hardship for many. Rightly so, public outrage rises every time people report instances of retailers quoting prices that are twice, if not three times, those charged in the European Union. This is felt even further by those individuals with chronic diseases who have to buy expensive medicines which are not included in the government free medicines formulary or when free medicines are out-of-stock from government dispensaries. Yet, the situation of medicine prices has changed very little since the latest controversy erupted when, in the Budget for this financial year, the government announced plans for the mandatory control of medicine prices. As usual, government is still dragging feet on this issue with the status quo prevailing and several thousand people who are dependent on high cost medicines to survive are being squeezed out of pocket.
Recently, the European Commission turned down a call made by a Labour MEP, John Attard Montalto, for an investigation into what he called the inexplicably high prices of medicines in Malta. In its reply, Commission said that the matter falls within the competence of the Maltese authorities. On the basis of this reply, Dr Montalto has now called on the government to launch an official inquiry to find out the reason for the exorbitant prices of medicinal products. However nothing has been done by government to address the issue with the usual results. It is within the remit of maltese government or the price monitoring board to investigate where are medicines originating from, the prices of their manufacture and whether medicines are bought directly from drug companies or a foreign agent. The answers to these questions are still lacking.
When the last controversy over the issue was at its peak, a representative of the importers, distributors and retailers was quoted saying that only a few products of the 2,500 to 3,000 on sale in Malta were marked higher than the average. Yet, according to a government study, on average, Maltese consumers are paying 40 per cent more than the EU average for their medicinal products. Something is clearly wrong here and according to a reply to a recent Parliamentary Question, at least 166 medicines are substantially higher to purchase in Malta than in the EU.
If the figures are correct, the difference is clearly unacceptable, whatever the reasons the trade may bring up for this, and the government is therefore right in threatening the importers and retailers with action unless the trade rectifies the situation. But does
government have the political will to do so? It is not enough for government to just warn the working committee. Remedial action and and a mechanism to ascertain fair medicines prices is needed fast.
What progress has been made in the plans to set up the mechanism for the regulation and control of medicine prices? Importers are likely to mount stiff opposition to any such mechanism but, in the absence of self-discipline and fair play, what alternative does the government have to tackle the problem? At one point, the healthcare business section of the Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry said that, if the price monitoring committee that had been set up to ensure fair prices for medicines was working properly, it would have protected the public, importers and distributors. Whose fault is it that it is not working properly? These questions need to be answered immediately and no foot-dragging should continue to be allowed.