Rising medicine costs burden global health systems

Medicine costs are a heavy burden on social security systems. [Be.Futureproof/Flickr]

France is leading calls for the G7 to act against the inflation of medicine prices. Treatment costs are rising in rich countries, but can be even higher in the developing world. EURACTIV France reports.

The high price of medication places the health systems of many developed countries under great strain. Faced with an increasingly acute situation, France’s President François Hollande has called on world leaders to act.

The French president signed an editorial published in the medical review The Lancet, in which he raised the issue of the exponential increase in the price of medicines over recent years, particularly for new treatments against cancer and hepatitis C.

In the editorial, the president said that France had “taken the initiative to mobilise the G7”. A meeting of the health ministers of the world’s seven richest countries (the United States, Japan Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada) is due to focus on improving coordination between the regulatory authorities, the pharmaceuticals industry and patients.

Access to new medicines

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, has also taken up the issue. In November 2015, he established the High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines, which will make its proposals in the coming months.

“This political momentum is linked to the risks that the price of medicines pose to the health systems of developed countries, particularly those to treat cancer and hepatitis C,” said Bruno Rivalan from the NGO Global Health Advocates.

But the objective of this initiative, to cut the cost of medicines, may ignore an even more crucial issue: providing access to medicine in low income countries.

Germans spend more on medicine than most of Europe

Expenditure on medicinal drugs in Germany is higher than in most other European countries, according to the OECD. EURACTIV Germany reports.

“The question is whether the French idea is simply to bring down the cost of treatments in industrialised countries or to look for a new global model that would undo the link between the cost of research and that of medicines,” Rivalan added.

Solutions to cut the cost of medicines differ greatly according to a country’s level of development.

In the poorest countries, medicines are bought through central purchasers like UNITAID, or paid for by international subsidies. In certain cases, laboratories shorten the duration of their patents to allow the production of cheaper generic alternatives.

The GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) laboratory recently made this concession.

First to suffer from the increasing cost of medicines are the middle-income countries. “When they stop receiving international aid, these countries like Morocco, Indonesia and Gabon have to buy their medicines at market prices,” said Rivalan.

“As a result, the poorest countries are the least well protected against the increasing cost of treatments,” he added.

As EU scraps aid, Indonesia introduces health insurance for the poor

The EU has turned its back on Indonesia’s health sector. But the developing country, which is witnessing growing rates of tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS, is now counting on other solutions: a new health insurance program for the poor, and its own pharmaceutical company. EURACTIV reports from Jakarta.

Without reduced tariffs, treatments can be extremely expensive, sometimes even more so than in high-income countries. “We need transparency on purchasing tariffs. If Morocco knows that it is paying more than France for the HPV vaccine, it will go about its price negotiations in a different way,” Rivalan said.

Latin American example

Latin American countries have begun cooperating to ensure access to the most recent treatments at reasonable prices.

Healthcare innovation: The cost killer?

Healthcare innovations such as eHealth and telemedicine offer new prospects for cost savings and improved quality of care, but expensive new technologies are also driving medical inflation and the benefits may not always be distributed equally.

The health ministers of the Union of South American Nations (USAN), a group representing all 12 countries on the South American continent, agreed in 2015 to negotiate with pharmaceutical laboratories as a bloc, in order to bring down the price of the most costly medicines.

According to the Uruguayan government, the joint negotiations will begin in May 2016, and a dedicated body will be charged with negotiating the prices of cancer treatments.

“This organisation between the countries of the region is very good news,” said Uruguay’s Minister for Health, Jorge Basso.

The price of medicines has become a topic of international concern because of the rapidly-increasing cost of the latest cancer treatments.

The poorest countries currently rely on international solidarity to avoid this cost inflation.

Other countries negotiate their prices individually with the pharmaceutical laboratories. As a result, costs can vary significantly from one country to another.

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