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Generic drugs to be free for most Indians

Federal government expands and improves national health plan

A doctor in India distributes medicine A doctor in India distributes medicine
  • Rita Joseph, New Delhi
  • India
  • July 11, 2012
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Health activists in India have welcomed an ambitious government scheme to provide free medicine to more than half of the country’s 1.2 billion people.

The 270 billion-rupee (around US$5 billion) scheme, announced a week ago, aims to give free and regular access to essential drugs, explained federal health secretary P K Pradhan. It will benefit poor people in nearly 600,000 villages and 779 cities.

The plan replaces the National Rural Health Mission, which expires this year and came under some scrutiny for its distribution of pharmaceuticals. India is a major producer of generic drugs, off-patent medications that cost much less than the brand-name versions.

The new plan provides a central pool that will procure generic drugs for most diseases and distribute them through government public health centers. It will also dramatically increase the scope of India's healthcare program by covering the urban poor.

James Veliath, program coordinator of Naz Foundation, India, said the new scheme would work only if properly implemented. “I am afraid transnational pharmaceutical firms would try to scuttle it,” he said.

According to him, the government already distributes medicine for certain diseases such as tuberculosis, leprosy and HIV. Government hospitals and dispensaries are supposed to give the medications free, but they seldom have the stock, he said.

Veliath wants the government to first convince the public and doctors that the free medicine is reliable and good.

Ranjit Roy Chaudhury, a clinical pharmacologist, warns that aggressive marketing by branded suppliers would lead to “irrational use of drugs” in the country.

Under the new plan, though, doctors who prescribe and promote branded drugs instead of the generic will be penalized, said the health secretary. The health department will also monitor the supply chain, Pradhan said.

Meanwhile Father Tomi Thomas, who heads the Catholic Health Association of India, wants the government to also use the Church’s healthcare centers to distribute medicine to ensure greater outreach.

According to him, the Church is the second largest healthcare provider in India after the government. “The government has less than 30 percent of healthcare centers, the rest is with the private sector,” the priest said.

For Ranjana Kumari, who directs the Centre for Social Research, drugs may not be the best medicine for India's health problems. The government should focus on providing safe drinking water and ensure better sanitation and disease-free environment instead of distributing free medicines, Kumari said.

Still, the government commitment is “very welcome” because India is one of the countries where people pay their own health bills, said Alok Mukhopadhyay, chief executive of the Voluntary Health Association of India.

According to him, individual Indians pay as much as 78 percent of what the country spends on healthcare. The new scheme will cover 52% of the population, up from 22% under the former plan.

He quoted government data that says medical care costs are a huge expense for many Indians, who take loans or sell their assets to pay off the bills, he added.

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