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China to step in on drug prices

December 2, 2019

Topics: Quote of the Day

By Roxanne Liu and Brenda Goh
Physician’s Weekly, Reuters, November 30, 2019

China will use its national drug bulk-buy scheme to lower the price of drugs currently sold at higher prices compared with other markets, it said in an official statement.

The move could force international drugmakers to further cut prices and enable copycat medicines to replace imported off-patent brands at faster pace.

Many branded versions of drugs are currently more expensive in China than in other major markets. They could now be subjected to a centralized procurement program where manufacturers will have to go through a bidding process to get the right to supply drugs to public hospitals, the National Health Commission said in a document published on late Friday.

The bulk-buy program, which currently covers 25 types of medicines, allows no more than three successful bidders access to China’s public hospitals, where most Chinese people buy their drugs.

The program caused the price of some drugs to plunge more than 90% when it was introduced last year in some cities, state news agency Xinhua said.

In the first round of nationwide implement of the program, in September, multinationals including Sanofi and Eli Lilly managed to cut some prices low enough to levels close to those offered by local generic makers.

Beijing will strengthen its monitoring of overseas drug market and collect global prices for imported medicines, Friday’s guideline said.

The government is leveraging its large patient population to push non-domestic drugs companies to cut prices to their lowest level globally.

Most foreign drugmakers offered Beijing the lowest prices globally in a recent round of negotiations in order to get some of their new products included in national insurance program, a move that will help them gain access to more patients in less-affluent cities, officials said on Thursday.



By Don McCanne, M.D.

When the marketplace fails the people, and the government has remedies that could correct the deficiencies in the markets to benefit the people, then the government should step in. Outrageous pricing of drugs and of the services of the pharmacy benefit managers is a prime example of market failure.

Right now there is a debate in Congress over taking the feeble step of importing drugs into the United States from Canada in order to take advantage of their generally lower drug prices. The population in California is greater than that of all of Canada. How is it logical that Canada should be a major supplier of drugs throughout the United States? Wouldn’t that be as illogical as sending all drugs to California, having them repriced and then redistributed throughout the United States? Neither well functioning markets nor well functioning public agencies would promote such a ridiculous scheme.

China has a drug pricing problem to which the pharmaceutical firms have not been adequately responsive. Their marketplace is not working for drugs. So what do they propose? They intend to use bulk purchasing through its public agencies. In response, some firms are already lowering their prices to a level that will allow them to bypass the bidding process. The inevitable result is that market prices will be more fair for the buyer and yet still high enough to ensure enough profits to maintain the viability of the pharmaceutical firms.

So what did we do in the United States? Congress specifically prohibited Medicare from negotiating appropriate prices for drugs in the Medicare Part D drug program. They left it to the market through our highly dysfunctional private insurance industry in the form of pharmacy benefit managers – a classic failure of market dynamics.

We can fix this. In fact, a well designed single payer model of Medicare for All would do precisely that – fair prices in a system that is equitably funded so that everyone can receive the medications that they should have.

China seems to recognize the important role that their own government can play in ensuring fair but not excessive compensation for the pharmaceutical industry. Why can’t our government do the same?

I can remember the great pride I had three-quarters of a century ago when standing before the American flag while the national anthem played, and that pride has not left me yet. But if the anti-government forces become much stronger the painful thought arises that it might become more appropriate to reverently kneel before the flag with profound respect for what this nation could be. But let’s not get to the point where protest replaces pride. After all, the nation belongs to all of us, not just the plutocrats.

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About the Commentator, Don McCanne

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Don McCanne is a retired family practitioner who dedicated the 2nd phase of his career to speaking and writing extensively on single payer and related issues. He served as Physicians for a National Health Program president in 2002 and 2003, then as Senior Health Policy Fellow. For two decades, Don wrote "Quote of the Day", a daily health policy update which inspired HJM.

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