GCC urged to unite on drug prices

A survey shows the UAE pays exorbitant prices for its pharmaceuticals, a predicament analysts blame on the nation's small market.

DUBAI // Gulf countries need to work together more effectively to compel pharmaceutical companies to cut drug prices, a leading expert said yesterday at a health forum. According to a survey last year by the World Health Organisation, drugs in the UAE cost 23 times more than international recommended prices.

The World Health Statistics 2009 report also found that the prices of selected generic medicines sold in the nation's pharmacies are 13.8 times the international reference price, the average charged to developing countries on a non-profit basis. Officials blame this disparity on the small UAE market, which gives the country little negotiating power when dealing with pharmaceutical companies. Speaking at the Healthcare Insurance Forum at the annual Arab Health exhibition, Ruch de Silva, a healthcare consulting analyst at Datamonitor, said the UAE and other Gulf countries should take a larger role in the GCC's Group Purchasing Programme, which brought together the six states to control healthcare expenses, beginning with hospital equipment in 1982.

Each year, the ministries of health from the GCC countries meet to discuss the medicines they need and issue tenders. But pharmaceutical companies can still deal with countries directly, potentially undermining the GCC's bulk buying power and causing regional price disparities, according to Mr de Silva. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has a pharmaceutical market five or six times bigger than the UAE's and can negotiate lower prices.

If the GCC states co-operated more, it would mean lower prices in all countries. "If you are representing a lot of players, you should be able to bring the price down," said Mr de Silva. "If you negotiate as a bloc, you should get much better rates. "The UAE should take a larger role in the GCC bulk buying purchasing process. Building economies of scale and a greater contribution could help to cut the cost of a lot of drugs that are brought in."

According to the GCC Secretariat General's website, bulk purchasing has "achieved great success in obtaining competitive and reasonable drug prices from drug manufacturers". Speaking earlier about the high price of medicines in the UAE, a Ministry of Health official said the population of the UAE played the biggest factor in the high prices. "Suppose a country has a population of 60 million. They will buy maybe 20 times more than what we can buy in the UAE with a population of five million," said Dr Amin al Amiri, the head of medical licensing and drug registration.

The Ministry of Health declined to comment yesterday. Introducing increasing numbers of less expensive generic drugs is another important task for the UAE, Mr de Silva said, but "replacing brands with generics overnight is not going to happen". Generics are typically a fraction of the cost of prescription drugs, and can potentially save health bodies millions of dirhams each year. "You don't really get the same generic drugs here that you have in the US, Germany or England. The generics that are available here are branded generics," Mr de Silva said. "Many people living here may choose to bring in drugs from elsewhere."

Last year the Health Authority-Abu Dhabi ruled that doctors must only write the generic names on prescriptions, allowing patients and pharmacists to decide whether to use generic or branded drugs. Mr de Silva also said the Ministry of Health needed to reassess its drug approval processes, as they were very "stringent". "One option is to ease restrictions on the approval of generics from countries such as Egypt and India, without compromising patient safety," he said.

munderwood@thenational.ae hkhalaf@thenational.ae