[EDITORIALS]Drug policy needs a cure

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[EDITORIALS]Drug policy needs a cure

Lee Tae-bok's charge that his dismissal as minister of health and welfare was due to a lobbying conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies is gaining credibility. Kim Hong-shin, a lawmaker from the Grand National Party, disclosed on Thursday materials at the National Assembly that showed multinational pharmaceutical companies' efforts to mobilize the U.S. government to put pressure on Seoul. The firms approached almost all the Washington officials concerned, visited Korean government offices and sent threatening letters to government officials. Let alone that the pressure may have caused the minister's dismissal, the lobbying also may have effected drug price regulations and hurt the finances of the National Health Insurance.

For example, a plan to charge patients the difference when doctors want to prescribe drugs more expensive than the government's recommendations allow was abolished; it was supposed to take effect in August last year. When Mr. Lee tried to introduce the policy of reducing drug prices again in January, the U.S. side put on pressure again by demanding their participation in meetings on drug pricing.

Last year the NHI spent 4.5 trillion won ($3.8 billion) on drug costs, up 25 percent from 1999 before medical reform. The government's prediction that drug payments would not go up even after medical reform turned out to be wrong because doctors wrote prescriptions for more expensive drugs.

The winners were multinational pharmaceutical firms that hold patents on the original drugs. The original medicines are up to 23 times as expensive as the drugs from domestic pharmaceutical companies of the same efficacy. Eight out of 10 medicines that the NHI spent the most on last year were the original medicines produced by multinational pharmaceutical firms. With the abolishment of a plan to charge patients the difference when doctors prescribe drugs more expensive than the government's recommendations allow, the NHI spent an additional 160 billion won in a year.

The National Assembly should inspect the issue and produce more reliable evidence. The National Assembly should find out what kind of pressure the U.S. applied and whether government policy was influenced. And the current policy on drug pricing should be improved since it does not work.
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