Control prices of medicines to realise UHC

Medicine pills

Assorted pharmaceutical medicine pills, tablets and capsules on wooden bowl.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • In low-income countries, healthcare cost is mainly determined by pharmaceutical commodities.
  • Compounding the situation in the country is the emergence of the raging Covid-19 pandemic.

A third of the world’s population, mostly in low-income countries like Kenya, lack access to essential medicines. Access and cost of medicines remain the core component of any healthcare delivery system.

In low-income countries, healthcare cost is mainly determined by pharmaceutical commodities: The lower the cost of medicines, the less the accrued cost of healthcare. Compounding the situation in the country is the emergence of the raging Covid-19 pandemic.

As the cost of other basic commodities rise, medicine prices have tripled. Majority of Kenyans, who pay for their medicines, bear this additional burden yet they cannot meet the daily cost of living.

Most Kenyans live below a dollar a day. Considering the rising cost of medicines, the overall affordability of the course of treatment for both chronic and acute conditions is not guaranteed. This desperate situation requires urgent government intervention at all levels with distinct focus on regulation of medicine prices at the distribution level.

Kenya has the most poorly regulated medicine prices despite the enactment of the Competition Act. Many attempts have been unsuccessfully made to introduce medicines mark-ups that would take care of the consumer’s welfare from rogue pharma players.

Further, the introduction of the policy has not changed this trend. Kenyans are left at the mercy of the ever-competing medicine distributors and suppliers. The resultant net effect of this in a free and liberal market is the soaring medicine prices in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ever-increasing medicine prices

In a bid to cushion the public from the ever-fluctuating medicine prices, the Ministry of Health initiated a public sector drug supply system reform through the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa), a body corporate with the mandate of developing and operating a viable commercial service for the procurement and sale of drugs and medical supplies to public health institutions.

But the scandal-hit state-owned corporation has underperformed. This necessitated the unified call from county governments to abandon it. 

With the perennial medicine stock-outs at public health facilities, Kenyans have opted to seek medical care at fairly costlier private and faith-based health facilities and retail pharmacy stores. 

The local pharmaceutical sector is steadily growing amid the myriad challenges it faces. More than 6,000 retail pharmacies are registered to operate in the country. Research has shown that many people visit the retail pharmacies as a first-stop point for services such as pharmaceutical care, counselling and consultation before being referred to mainstream health facilities for specialised care. 

The outlying effects of Covid-19 has increased the demand for pharmaceutical services at retail pharmacies more than 20-fold. Sadly, the ever-increasing medicine prices will not only affect the operations of the struggling retailers but directly overburden ‘Wanjiku’ and reverse the little gains brought about by universal health coverage (UHC) programme.

The government ought to regulate the prices of medicine to give Kenyans the highest attainable standards of health as espoused in UHC.

Eric Sedah is the national chairman, Kenya Pharmaceutical Association (KPA). [email protected]