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Oct 2013
'Rip-off' as medicines seven times dearer here than in North
CONSUMERS are being ripped off on the price of prescription drugs – paying up to seven times more for some popular medicines than in Northern Ireland. The startling difference between cross-border price tags is highlighted in a survey conducted by the Irish Independent, which shows why patients are still being driven north to shop. The survey reveals going north of the Border for a popular cholesterol-lowering drug can save a patient €400 a year. The findings raise questions about the level of availability of generic drugs in the Republic. GENERIC Consumers' representatives say the price gaps are "breathtaking" and are calling on the Government to reform the way the prices of medicines are structured. Although the cross-border price gap has narrowed for many consumer items in recent years, the price differential on drugs is still massive. Despite cost-cutting moves by the HSE to reduce the price of drugs paid to manufacturers and pharmacists, top-selling medications remain far more expensive in many cases. Prescriptions can normally be filled in any EU country, giving patients the opportunity to make savings when they are abroad. A month's supply of the generic cholesterol-lowering medicine Atorvastatin costs as much as €41.59 in a Doc Morris pharmacy on this side of the Border, compared with just €5.88 in Newry, Co Down. The price difference on a year's supply of the drug is a whopping €400. For low-dosage aspirin – taken by patients to reduce heart attack risk – the price in the North is just a quarter of what it is in some southern pharmacies. It costs just €2.11 for a month's supply of this medicine in McKeevers pharmacy in Newry, compared with €9.12 in Boots in the South. Low-dosage aspirin is available over the counter in the North, which may partly explain the lower cost. There are also significant differences in the price of the commonly prescribed stomach medication Omeprazole, which is also up to four times more expensive in the Republic where it is priced between €22 and €26, compared to about €6 in Northern Ireland. However, Lipitor, the branded version of Atorvastatin, costs slightly more in the Newry store than in some pharmacies in the Republic. The spokesperson for McKeevers in Newry said that in Northern Ireland generic prescription was the norm, meaning that more expensive branded drugs were much less commonly purchased. There are also savings to be made by shopping around for lower prescription prices on this side of the Border; for example, Sam McCauley charges €10 less for generic Atorvastatin than some of its rivals. The Consumers' Association of Ireland (CAI) said the price gaps highlighted between Northern Ireland and the Republic were "breathtaking". CAI chief executive Dermott Jewell said that at a time when people were struggling to afford the basics of life, it was "outrageous that the price of medicine is still so astronomically high". "The method of structuring prices is unfair and the Minister for Health James Reilly needs to go back and look at this once and for all," he said. The HSE is bringing in new measures to reduce the price of generic drugs, with the price of Atorvastatin set to fall by 20pc next month and others to follow later. Even with that fall, however, Atorvastatin will remain about four times more expensive than in the North. Doc Morris managing director Goretti Brady said that the ex-factory price of generic and patented drugs set by the state and manufacturers was higher in the Republic than other European countries, meaning higher prices to consumers. The North and Britain also had a much stronger generic tradition, with 80pc of drugs there generic versus 18pc here. CHEAPER Reference pricing and generic substitution – allowing pharmacists to dispense a cheaper generic medicine instead of a higher-priced branded one – had only just been introduced here, with the first reference price for Atorvastatin awaited shortly. "The phased implementation of these initiatives will result in an associated phased reduction of pricing here," said Ms Brady. A spokesperson at McKeevers said many customers travelled from the Republic to fill prescriptions. "If anything, this has increased in the past few years," she said. Asked to comment on the price differences, Boots Ireland said it was committed to offering clear and transparent pricing on all prescription medicines. "In 2012, Boots Ireland was the first pharmacy to change its pricing structure for prescription medicines to offer customers transparency on pricing – this applies to both branded and generic medication," it said. "The new pricing offers private patients 0pc mark-up on medication and a flat-rate professional service fee of €7. The cost of prescription medicine varies per country and is set by the manufacturer. Boots Ireland can only sell those medicines licensed for sale in Ireland." Aideen Sheehan Consumer Correspondent Irish Independent
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