Inquirer - March 19, 2007
MANILA, Philippines -- Seventy-one-year-old Gloria Silverio doesn’t mind walking a good 10 to 15 minutes to get to a drugstore to buy medicines for herself and her husband.
Although she can take a tricycle or, better yet, go to another drugstore nearer her house, she prefers this one on Roosevelt Avenue in Quezon City, as it sells cheaper medicines.
“I would rather endure the long walk because the medicines there are cheaper. Every peso counts,” said Silverio, who takes Euglocon once a day for her diabetes, in Filipino.
Silverio’s “suki” drugstore, Coops for Christ, is a Botika ng Bayan outlet, a program of the government-owned Philippine International Trading Corp. aimed at providing cheaper but equally efficacious medicines and at halving prices of commonly bought drugs in three years.
Launched in December 2004, Botika ng Bayan imports mainly from India and Pakistan but also carries local branded generic drugs. Most of the medicines being imported are for asthma, hypertension and diabetes.
Through the Botika project, a network of privately run drug stores would be set up to provide products guaranteed by the Department of Health and the Bureau of Food and Drugs.
With her husband already retired, Silverio, who is working on a commission basis for St. Peter Life Plan, tries to make ends meet in light of their need for medicines.
Aside from Euglocon, which retails for P10 to P11 a capsule, Silverio buys Nifedipine for her husband who needs to take a tablet thrice daily.
Nifedipine is an antihypertensive drug that retails for about P44 a tablet. At certain times, Silverio would also need Isordil, an antihypertensive drug, which sells for about P14.
“Our maintenance medicines are really expensive. That’s why when I saw that drugstore and learned that they’re selling cheaper medicines, I decided to give it a try,” said Silverio. “I’ve been buying from them for a year already and the effects are the same.”
The generic counterpart for Euglocon, which Silverio now buys from the Botika ng Bayan, is sold for only P5 to P6, while Nifedipine costs her P25 to P26.
These prices are 40-percent to 50-percent lower than what Silverio used to pay.
Silverio is one of the growing number of Filipinos who are starting to realize that quality medicines need not be too expensive.
Roberto Pagdanganan, PITC chair and president, said public awareness of the Botika ng Bayan was one of the most important accomplishments of the program.
“Before, people would buy whatever was prescribed to them. Now, more people are looking for generic counterparts of medicines with the belief that these are just as safe and efficacious as branded ones,” said Pagdanganan. “They also know now that they have a right to lower-priced medicines.”
Sales of generic drugs, he said, rose to 4 percent as of 2006, from 2-3 percent in 2004 and 2005.
“Even just a one-percentage point increase in the share of generics in the P100-billion drug market is already a big thing in absolute value,” said Cecilia Sison, PITC vice president for business development.
Pagdanganan said he believed that by the end of the year, the share of generics -- both branded and “true” -- would increase to as much as 20 to 25 percent.
“Our dream even is to achieve a 50-percent market share for generics by 2010,” Sison said.
True generics are not associated with any manufacturer and are known and classified by its content (i.e., ascorbic acid, metformin). Branded generics are lower-priced medicines manufactured by and identified with pharmaceutical companies.
“We want to make a dent, a huge impact and in order to do that, we have to break the ‘cartelized’ system,” said Pagdanganan.
“To achieve this and our targets, the agency is adopting a three-pronged strategy -- expanded product range, expanded distribution network and aggressive, intensified information and advocacy campaigns,” he said.
To expand its product range, the PITC is doing parallel importation and is encouraging local manufacturers to produce their own lines of medicines especially for off-patent ones.
For this year, it is looking at importing up to P1 billion worth of low-cost medicines.
“Parallel importation becomes necessary only if local prices are so high,” Pagdanganan said. “This is just one component of our overall strategy. But once we’ve strengthened the local pharmaceutical industry, we don’t have to do that anymore.”
Seventy percent of the drug industry in the country is controlled by foreign pharmaceutical firms, according to Sison.
The Philippines is one of the few countries whose market for medicines is dominated by foreign companies.
Prices of commonly bought medicines are said to be five to six times higher than those of similar drugs sold in other countries.
Pagdanganan encourages Philippine companies to produce generic counterparts for a “fairer, healthy market competition that will effectively bring down prices.”
To give parallel importation and manufacturing of off-patent drugs a “legal and firmer basis,” the agency is supporting the passage of Senate Bill No. 2263 filed by Sen. Manuel Roxas II.
The bill seeks to relax the Intellectual Property Code to strengthen the legality of parallel importation, allow an “early working doctrine,” adopt the doctrine of international exhaustion regime, and enforce the non-patentability of new uses.
There were about 1,300 Botika ng Bayan outlets as of February 2007 and more than 7,000 Botika ng Barangay stores.
A Botika ng Bayan outlet is a privately owned and operated drugstore, which carries over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription drugs, as well as imported branded medicines.
Outlets have a signage that bears the Botika ng Bayan logo and its catchphrase “Gamot na Mabisa na, Mas Abot-kaya pa!”
A Botika ng Barangay, meanwhile, is owned either by a local government unit, people’s organization or community-based organization. It sells only OTC and selected prescription drugs.
In the second quarter of the year, the PITC will launch BNB Express, a privately owned convenience store, which will also sell only OTC and selected prescription drugs.
“Our goal for 2007 is to have 2,000 Botika ng Bayan outlets, 11,000 Botika ng Barangay and 10,000 BNB Express stores,” Sison said.
“We have been mandated by President (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) to have at least one Botika ng Bayan for every two barangays. I think by 2010, we can even push it further to three Botikas in four barangays,” Pagdanganan said.
Employment opportunities abound
Providing cheaper medicines and greater access to these, is just one side of the Botika ng Bayan story.
“More than just making medicines more affordable, the Botika ng Bayan program is also about creating more jobs, more opportunities for Filipinos,” said Pagdanganan.
Take the case of Virginia Pajayjay Lejano, an owner of a Botika ng Bayan outlet at Batasan Hills in Quezon City.
Hers is fairytale-like story which begins with her being the second eldest in a poor family of 20 siblings and its sole breadwinner.
Add to that, Lejano was afflicted with a Stage 4 blood cancer in the early ’80s. Her “miraculous” recovery, according to her doctor, only means that Lejano’s second lease on life was meant for her to “fulfill a mission.”
Believing that “God was good” to her, Lejano decided to pay it forward by opening a Botika ng Bayan outlet in her neighborhood.
“I feel that this is my mission -- to help my neighbors by giving them access to cheaper medicines,” Lejano said in Filipino.
Lejano worked as a janitress at the PITC for more than a decade. She then became an agent for Order Regalo, one of the PITC’s Internal Exports Programs for overseas contract workers. On the side, she engaged in buy-and-sell (garments and groceries) to augment her income and, at the same time, put herself to college.
She also took on a franchise under the PITC’s Order Negosyo program.
Despite her lack of knowledge about medicines, Lejano ventured into this new field with a strong resolve, upon learning that the Botika ng Bayan will primarily serve the poor.
Some customers were hesitant at first, questioning the quality of the low-priced medicines that Lejano was selling at her drugstore.
“You can’t avoid people doubting and questioning the efficacy of the medicines. The key is to explain and make them understand that these medicines are just as effective and safe,” she said.
With Lejano taking time to explain the Botika ng Bayan concept to her customers, more of them are learning to ask doctors for generic counterparts.
More importantly, she has created a form of livelihood out of the Botika ng Bayan. Aside from providing jobs, she has also helped set up four other Botika outlets for some of her customers.
Understanding the importance of a strong information campaign as demonstrated by Lejano, the PITC has further intensified its advocacy for generics and the Botika ng Bayan through television and radio ads.
“We couldn’t advertise much before because we don’t have a lot of outlets yet,” said Pagdanganan. “But now that the project is in full swing and many people are starting to understand generics, nothing can stop us now.”
With the collaborative efforts of PITC and various agencies, coalitions and organizations, doctors, pharmacists and even consumers, Pagdanganan said he was confident that PITC would exceed its targets for 2010.
“If in 2000, only less than 30 percent of our population had access to medicines, by 2010, it will be the other way around -- only less than 30 percent will not have access to medicines,” said Pagdanganan. “This market won’t ever be the same again.”