SINGAPORE - Patients on a subsidised health-care scheme can now get 24 branded drugs at half price under a new initiative that kicked in on Tuesday.
Offered by pharmaceutical firm MSD, the discount is for those on the Community Health Assist Scheme (Chas), in which lower to middle-income patients can get government subsidies for treatment by private general practitioners and dentists.
It means easier access to otherwise costly drugs at 243 clinics taking part in the MSD Assist scheme. Patients can sign up at any of these for free.
The move was quickly welcomed by doctors, who said that it gave patients more options without burning a hole in their pockets - for instance, in cases where the patented drugs may be more effective than cheaper or generic drugs, which are non-branded medicines for which the patent protection has expired.
The branded drugs cover 17 ailments, including those requiring long-term medication such as diabetes, high cholesterol and hypertension. They typically cost $60 to $100 for a month's supply, while generic drugs cost $20 to $30.
With the discount, prices will be "brought down to earth" so they are comparable to cheaper generic options, said Dr Philip Koh, chairman of the medical board of Healthway Medical Group, whose 53 clinics will offer the new discount.
It is hoped that MSD Assist will help patients who struggle with payment and miss out on their medication. Said Dr Koh: "Some are given one month's supply of medication, but return only two months later. One reason is cost."
To qualify for Chas, patients must be over 40 and come from a household with a monthly income of no more than $1,500 per person. Latest figures from the Health Ministry (MOH), which runs Chas, show there are more than 260,000 Chas cardholders - more than seven times the number there were in January 2012.
An MOH spokesman said this is an independent initiative by MSD and that there are alternative drugs, branded and generic, for most conditions.
But Dr Tan Joo Peng, deputy physician leader at Raffles Medical, noted that several discounted drugs do not have generic equivalents so patients may not have cheaper alternatives to turn to.
Of the 250 Chas patients seeking treatment at Raffles Medical every month, only about 10 to 20 per cent of them are taking patented drugs, he said.
Ms Lisa Yeoh, managing director of MSD Pharma (Singapore), said the scheme may be expanded. "The medicines are selected based on diseases that are the most common here. This scheme will address the needs of our society," she said.
Dr Terence Tan, assistant medical director of Parkway Shenton, which runs more than 40 GP clinics, said a patient's finances can influence how doctors prescribe, especially if he is less well-off.
He said: "With a reduced financial burden, patients can have easier access to drugs and this in turn can potentially improve their health."
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