CM warns and pleads

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee warned drug retailers against "playing with fire" a day after they shut down almost all pharmacies to protest a move to offer medicines at fair prices in state-owned health care facilities.

"Don't close the shops…. Those who are saying they won't allow fair-price shops, I am requesting with folded hands, don't do this," Mamata said at the inauguration of the fair-price drugstore at SSKM Hospital.

The pharmacies at MR Bangur Hospital and Calcutta Medical College and Hospital were opened earlier. The state government intends setting up 35 fair-price drugstores across the state where generic medicines would be sold at prices lower than their branded equivalents.

Drug retailers think a boon for patients will be the bane of pharmacies. Hence the war cry at Esplanade on Monday and the show of strength that paralysed traffic and held up patients headed for various hospitals and nursing homes.

At the fair-price drugstore in SSKM, branded Paracetamol that sells for Rs 30 a strip elsewhere is sold for Rs 13 in its generic form (see chart).

Sources in the pharmaceutical industry said in certain cases the MRP printed by manufacturers would ensure an almost 300 per cent profit for the retailer.

"Cancer drugs, antibiotics and even some common medicines are being sold at more than thrice the distributor's price," said a wholesaler. "Now with fair-price drugstores coming up, the retailers are feeling threatened."

Once word spreads about the fair-price drugstores, more and more patients suffering from critical illnesses and requiring long-term treatment are likely to take the trouble of visiting a government outlet rather than heading for the nearest pharmacy. "The difference in prices will be significant. Retailers are afraid they will lose bulk buyers," the wholesaler said.

Bhowanipore resident Indrajit Hazra, 53, suffers from a cardiac ailment and is on lifelong medication. He needs to buy medicines worth at least Rs 7,000 a month. "Earlier, I had to buy it from the neighbourhood shops, who never gave me any discount. But now that a fair-price drugstore has opened at SSKM, which is near my house, I will be buying my medicines from there at a much lower price," he said.

On Tuesday, Hazra paid Rs 61 for some tablets that cost him Rs 250 at a neighbourhood pharmacy.

Drug retailers said they feared their businesses would crash if generic drugs were sold at lower prices in government hospitals. "More than 75 per cent of the patients in Bengal go to government hospitals for treatment. So you can imagine the impact on us," said the owner of a pharmacy opposite SSKM Hospital.

Health department officials said the decision to set up stores stocking generic drugs was meant to break the nexus between a section of doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

"We make a maximum profit of 16 per cent. Because most of these medicines are not price-regulated, manufacturers set different prices for each of them and we have no hand in that," said Tushar Chakraborty, the general secretary of the Bengal Chemists and Druggists Association.

The chief minister advised retailers to be fair if they wanted to compete with the stores selling generic drugs. "Take part in the bids and you could have a fair-price shop of your own," she said.

There are around 35,000 medicine retailers across Bengal and the government plans to open only 35 fair-price drugstores as of now. "How can we participate in the bidding? The minimum criterion is an annual turnover of Rs 2 crore in Calcutta and Rs 1 crore in the districts. There is hardly any retailer with such a high turnover," Chakraborty said.

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