It has been widely reported that an RSS Affiliate (Swadeshi Jagran Manch) has taken issue with the recommendation of the Niti Ayog to delink the Drug Price Control Order (DPCO) from the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM).

In order to understand if this recommendation makes sense, we need to first understand why a NLEM and a DPCO exist in the first place.

The reason for a NLEM is simple. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines an Essential Medical List as “Essential medicines are intended to be available within the context of functioning health systems at all times in adequate amounts, in the appropriate dosage forms, with assured quality, and at a price the individual and the community can afford.” It further says “National lists of essential medicines usually relate closely to national guidelines for clinical health care practice which are used for the training and supervision of health workers.”

Therefore, clearly, a functioning healthcare system in a country like ours needs to ensure some medicines, which our medical community considers as essential should be available at all times. It is important to note that this is not a static list; depending upon the need of the hour, this list changes. For example, when the avian-flu epidemic hit, Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) was added to this list because of its public-health impact, until we got a handle on that disease.

Now let us understand why we need price controls. In functioning markets, where the consumer demand drives price, controls are redundant. However, as I have argued in the past, healthcare is not a perfect market. The consumer (patient) is often ill-informed about the choices she is prescribed and therefore, regulation is needed to protect the consumer. The question here is whether we apply control across the board or use it as a selective tool to ensure there is no price gouging.

We have used the DPCO as a broad corrective measure to counter inefficiencies in our healthcare system. In an ideal situation, all things being equal (especially the quality of our drug supply), and external influence is minimized (over-the-top promotional practices), natural market forces should drive the price to the point of affordability. Price of medicine will reach some sort of an equilibrium assuming there are more than a few manufacturers who supply the product to the market. Historically, this doesn’t happen because the system is opaque and often skewed. Therefore, the knee-jerk reaction is to impose external controls, which are often counter-productive to achieve the goal of affordability.

Our country needs a viable and thriving pharmaceutical industry; and external controls typically do not foster its health. We need our industry to manufacture good quality product, which works as specified and provides therapeutic benefit. The industry has to make a profit and create value for its shareholders. An across-the-board implementation of price controls is counter-productive to this goal.

The problems that challenge affordability are somewhere else. They are in our regulatory framework, our ability to enforce the law as it is written today and our dysfunctional institutions which are responsible for the implementation of our healthcare policy.

Price controls are necessary when there is no competition. If a particular manufacturer has monopoly on a life saving product, price-caps are justified. But using this method when there are a myriad of manufacturers who are expected to make the same product and compete on price is not good for our healthcare system. Clearly, not all things are equal when it comes to medicines in India. There are grades of quality, and I have adequately written about this earlier. We need to fix that and allow the market to determine who survives and who doesn’t.

In markets for essential medicines, competition will ensure low prices; but we have to accept that prices may be higher than the capped price, because caps, set too low compromise the ability of legitimate manufacturers to make a good quality product. Going back to the WHO definition of EML, a key criteria, good quality, is compromised if the price cap is set too low. For example, in 2011, prior to the introduction of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy, 27 of the 74 drugs under price control were discontinued by the industry because it was unprofitable for them to make. As recently as 2013, wholesalers and retailers temporarily stopped buying stocks of essential medicines with unviable margins leading to a shortage of medicines in the market. How does this help us protect public health?

The larger issue that needs addressing is strengthening our institutions and making governance transparent and accountable. It has been reported that the administration is considering consolidating bureaucracy across multiple ministries to simplify implementation of policy objectives. There is absolutely no reason why Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and Ministry of Chemicals & Fertilizers all have to have a say. Improving standards of governance and accountability requires qualified administrators; especially people who have background and experience in public health be hired, empowered and made accountable to the citizens of this country. And finally, bringing our outdated healthcare law on par with globally accepted standards for quality should be a key objective.

DPCO is a tool that we need to use sparingly, not broadly. There are good reasons where price caps make sense, but using is across the board is not helpful. We need to enable market forces to function, and use the regulatory and the legal justice system to hold people who distort the market dynamics publicly accountable. Using it to cover up dysfunction and inefficiencies in our systems is not a sound solution. Price caps are not appropriate for medicines on the EML; we should enable the market to drive affordability. Specialty medicines with monopoly producers is where price caps are most effective, or at least a threat of a negotiated price so that gouging does not occur.

The recommendations of the Niti Ayog seem to be in the right direction for the country. Delinking the EML from DPCO makes sense; price caps may be warranted in certain cases and an EML is required, but competition will ensure low enough prices and hopefully of good quality if we get fix our systems and get our institutions working properly. Let us not make the same mistake we made before; take knee-jerk actions to address a short-term problem and compromise what we need for the country in the long term.