A new programme will allow public health facilities to distribute free generic medications to all Indians.
Kanu Bose, a bank clerk in Kolkata, lost his brother to oral cancer in 2007.
"He could have survived because the cancer was detected in an early stage. But we could not afford the treatment. Even in a government hospital it would have cost more than Rs 150,000 ($2,700) in those days. So, after the first round of chemotherapy, we brought him home and watched him die, helpless."
More than 600 million Indians stand to benefit when the government begins rolling out its "Free Medicines for All" programme in October. Drugs for cancer, AIDS, heart, liver and kidney conditions and numerous other ailments that were hitherto prohibitively expensive for most Indians will be distributed free at public health facilities throughout the country.
For hundreds of millions like Kanu, medicine makes up more than 70% of the total bill for treatment.
"'Free Medicines for All' was initially thought to be an impossible plan. But we have tied up the finances and secured the distribution network. There is no justification for continuing with the present system where poor people die for want of money to buy lifesaving medicines," Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad told Khabar South Asia.
Unknown to most Indians, "Free Medicines for All" is already operating in Tamil Nadu, where it was introduced in 2004. The state's 72 million people have access to the country's most efficient healthcare system.
"We have a per capita health outlay of only Rs 29 (52 cents), but we are proud to say that nobody in Tamil Nadu suffers for want of money to pay for medicines," South Chennai MP S. Rajendran told Khabar.
The Planning Commission suggested an expenditure of Rs 286.75 billion ($5.15 billion) for medicines as well as Rs 12.93 billion ($232.3 million) for meeting costs of building the right facilities to carry out a service of this scale – new infrastructure, more personnel and training.
The cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, approved the plan on June 23rd.
"The prime minister has put his own weight behind the programme," Azad said. "This programme helps India achieve the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations."
He added, "Only about 20% of the 1.7 billion people at present have access to health care. By 2017, we expect to cover 52%."
Experts believe that at the heart of "Free Medicines for All" is an already famous Indian success story – generic drugs.
Unlike branded drugs, generic drugs sell for a pittance. That's because product patents are not permitted on medicines developed prior to 1995. Though India has accepted the World Trade Organisation (WTO) patents regime, its own 2005 law disallows fresh patents unless the "efficacy" of the applicant drug is significantly higher.
"India is now the world's largest supplier of generic medicines to UNICEF and the Clinton Foundation," Harsh Vardhan, a leading member of the Delhi Medical Association who was awarded the World Health Organization (WHO) "Director-General's Commendation Medal" in 1998, told Khabar.
"More than 80% of drugs for all diseases used by the International Dispensary Association are sourced from India because lifesaving generic drugs cost a small fraction of the international prices here."
Naturally, global drug leaders resisted this. Tenofovir disoproxil fumarate, brand-named "Viread" and developed by US-based Gilead Sciences, brought this dispute to the fore in 2005. Indian NGOs challenged that there was nothing new about the drug to warrant patenting. This was upheld by the Supreme Court but an appeal is pending.
Under the "Free Medicines for All" programme, doctors in public health facilities will be under orders not to prescribe branded drugs in situations where generics are available. "They will face disciplinary action if found to be favouring big pharmaceuticals," Azad said.
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