Today, sitting in New Delhi, an official of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) is able to pick signs of drug shortages. He gathers this through data thrown up by complaints that people make either on mail or a toll-free helpline. This is part of "Pharma Jan Samadhan", an initiative under which anybody can post complaints of overpricing of a drug or its non-availability. Wholesalers can also complain if a company is refusing to supply a particular drug or is selling it without price approval. The initiative was launched on March 12.
The complaints so far have been mostly about either non-availability or refusal to supply. "In a week we get five to 10 complaints about non-availability and around five about refusal to supply," says an NPPA official. What is more, the system makes it easy to pick patterns or common issues. The data can show if it is a broad-based problem or a regional aberration. Globally, in the US for instance, such complaints are the norm and help local authorities take remedial steps. Things may not happen overnight here but, as is apparent, this may be a good starting point.
NPPA Chairman Injeti Srinivas, who may not be tracking the developments at a micro level like his team members, is clear. "It is not a magic wand. Nothing can happen overnight. It is an attempt to bring in more transparency." Many in the industry see it as a public contact exercise with some dismissing it as a public relations effort. They say the system will be effective only if there are good follow-ups and dedicated staff to resolve the complaints. This may be challenge at the moment.
On this, Srinivas says that the Integrated Pharma Critical Data Management System (IPDMS) will be in place in a month or so and may help. The NPPA has asked all pharmaceutical companies to register themselves under the IPDMS for online filing of returns for monitoring, fixing and revision of drug prices. Once this is done, data from these companies will be available with the NPPA.
Besides, there is a proposal to build teams of five-six officials in every state drug controller's office to handle issues of price control, overcharging and shortages. The idea is to set up Price Monitoring and Resource Units in all states/UTs to give technical assistance to state drug controllers and the NPPA for monitoring violations of pricing rules. The units will collect market data of scheduled and non-scheduled formulations and test samples of medicines. There is a proposal to put in place a central scheme with annual assistance of Rs 25 crore for this. Srinivas is hopeful this may be in place in about six months.
However, what is not clear is how will the system weed out dummy complaints or complaints posted by a rival company, which is quite likely? Also, since the follow-up is offline, how will the issue of corruption be handled? Timelines and action taken reports are also areas of concern. Apparently, efforts are on to post the details online.
If these things can be handled, it may just be the solution we all are hoping for.