Roxas blames lobby group for derailing House approval
By Efren L. Danao, Senior Reporter
Sen. Manuel “Mar” Roxas 2nd on Monday said “lobbyists” had raised the issue of price control as a last-ditch effort to derail enactment of the Cheaper Medicines Act in the House of Representatives.
“Everything was already ironed out, but some are still against it. They still would not want to approve it. They are still looking for something to complain about. This might be the last card of the lobby,” Roxas pointed out, as he appealed to the House to ratify a bicameral report on the proposal as a gift to Filipinos on Labor Day on May 1.
House Speaker Prospero Nograles apparently heard the plea. Sounding optimistic, he said he had told the House contingent to the bicameral conference on the Cheaper Medicines Act, which is also known as the Quality Affordable Medicines Act, to allow enactment of the proposal before May 1. He cited assurances given him by the contingent on strict conditions set to ensure that the full intention of the law—bring down the cost of medicines—is carried out.
The House Speaker, in a statement, said that while he was uncomfortable with the removal of the “generics-only” provision from the proposal, he was at ease with the deletion of the regulatory-board provision from it.
Unlike Roxas, Rep. Risa Hontiveros Baraquel of party-list Akbayan named lobbyists allegedly out to kill the Cheaper Medicines Act. She identified them as Eli Lily, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Wyeth—all alleged members of the lobby group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. This lobby group, she said, worked the Office of the US Trade Representative for it to scuttle the bill.
“Predictably, the US Trade Representative talked to some legislators last December to lobby against the bill,” Baraquel told reporters.
Cavite Rep. Joseph Emilio Aguinaldo Abaya, also in a statement, said he had received reports on a “multimillion [public-relations] slush fund to discredit the bill and its key authors.” He added that the alleged demolition job may be tied to the 2010 elections. Roxas, the principal author of the Quality Affordable Medicines Act, is considered among the frontrunners in the presidential race in 2010. Abaya was a co-author of the bill in the House.
Roxas said the leaders of the House panel to the bicameral conference had endorsed the bicameral report that removed the regulatory board, which will control prices of medicines. Some congressmen charged that the bicameral report had watered the bill down with the removal of the board.
“What should we do now?” Roxas asked. “We will not pass it because a few are against it?”
Roxas insisted that the Quality Affordable Medicines Act has become even stronger because accountability on drug prices now rests with the President and the secretary of the Health department.
“It is difficult to pinpoint accountability in a [regulatory] board. A board is the dumping place of election losers and relatives of powerful politicians. It is clearer, more transparent, if only one person, the Health secretary, has the power to set the price ceiling,” he said.
Roxas wondered why some congressmen are against giving President Gloria Arroyo the power to regulate drug prices when they had already given her the power to fix the price of rice through the National Food Authority.
“Are they saying that the price of drugs would go down if the power is vested in a board, but it won’t go down if it is with the President?” he asked.
Roxas assured lawmakers that the bicameral report contains all tools needed to help bring down the costs of medicines. Among these are parallel importation to improve competition and strengthening of the Bureau of Food and Drugs so that it can process the importation of quality drugs faster.
He said the bicameral report contains a “no-discrimination” clause so that all drugstores would be the first to place competing products on the shelves.
“All provisions, all powers conceived by the House and the Senate to be bestowed on [the regulatory] board are in the bill, but not [vested in] nameless, faceless, unaccountable board members.” Roxas added. “We placed [this accountability] on the Office of the President and the Secretary of Health.”
House contingent on bicam panel
Nograles said he was giving the House contingent to the bicameral conference headed by Palawan Rep. Antonio Alvarez full autonomy to deal with the Senate. The Speaker added that he will support the panel’s decision on whether “to go or not to go” for ratification of the final bicameral report on the Cheaper Medicines Act.
If both Houses agree on the final draft of the bicameral report, they will then separately ratify the proposal and the consolidated bill will be transmitted to President Arroyo for signing into law.
Passing the Quality Affordable Medicines Act cannot wait any longer, said former Sen. Ernesto Herrera, now chairman of the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines.
Also in a statement, he called for immediate passage of the bill “to provide relief to the working class, many of whom are already suffering from high oil and food prices.”
Herrera said the right to affordable medicines is a constitutional one. “We should not be deprived this right by those who have vested interests in seeing this bill derailed.”
The inclusion of the regulatory board in the bill raises the question of “motives,” the former senator said.
“Why hold the entire bill hostage to this obsession for a drug price board? This can be a potential source of red tape and corruption,” he warned.
Herrera said they “absolutely” favor the Senate version, which gives the Secretary of Health the authority to review drug prices and to recommend to President Arroyo as to which medicines should be price-regulated.
–With Sammy Martin