PETALING JAYA - Medicine prices have soared and are expected to continue to rise next year.
The prices of some drugs increased 20 per cent to 50 per cent this year alone, with most companies adjusting their prices twice over the last 12 months, according to the Malaysian Community Pharmacy Guild.
MCPG president Wong Sie Sing said the "normal" annual increase is between 5 per cent and 10 per cent but with the Goods and Services Tax coming into effect next April, consumers have to brace themselves for another round of hikes of 10 per cent to 40 per cent across the board.
"We sympathise with consumers and are working with the Government and stakeholders to ensure affordable drug prices," he said.
MCPG, which represents more than 2,000 community pharmacies employing some 2,500 pharmacists, is urging the Government to set up a national health financing authority to control medical costs.
"Otherwise, drug prices could rise very rapidly," Wong said.
There is now no price control mechanism for pharmaceuticals.
Malaysian Pharmaceutical Society (MPS) president Datuk Nancy Ho said the rising prices of both imported and generic drugs could force many to stop taking their medicine.
MPS is the national association for pharmacists in Malaysia, with some 4,000 members.
Ho said: "The rise in drug prices could be due to increased costs of raw materials, equipment, labour and transportation as well as the weak currency exchange, which impacts all sectors.
"GST will worsen the situation further as almost all newer medicines with better results and less side effects will be taxed 6 per cent."
Malaysian Medical Association president Dr H. Krishna Kumar said the cost of all drugs had risen higher than the inflation rate, warning that even tax-exempted drugs would go up with the increase in the cost of transportation and storage which are taxed.
Academy of Medicine of Malaysia council member Datuk Dr N.K.S. Tharmaseelan said drug prices had been increasing every six months at an average of 10 per cent to 20 per cent generally.
"Newer drugs to treat diabetes and hypertension have become unaffordable. Though they are the best, public hospitals do not dish out such drugs as they are pricey," he said.
Dr Tharmaseelan, who is an MMA past president, said drugs required for long-term use should be subsidised or declared as controlled items with fixed profit margins.
Universiti Sains Malaysia (School of Pharmaceutical Sciences) Assoc Prof Mohamed Azmi Ahmad Hasalli said the prices of branded and generic drugs mainly for cardiovascular diseases, cholesterol lowering, diabetes, female hormone condition, allergies and gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments had risen between 5 per cent and 25 per cent.
"The lack of a price control mechanism has caused drug prices to escalate faster than in a developed nation," he said.
He said the situation was worse now than it was in 2012 when he published a report on a study he made comparing retail drug prices in Penang and Australia.
The report in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Health Services Research said the average retail price of the 10 most prescribed drugs in Penang was between 30.3 per cent and 148.3 per cent higher than in Australia.
Already struggling to cope with rising drug prices, many patients are now worried that they will no longer be able to afford their medication.
A 78-year-old pensioner, who only wanted to be known as Ong, for instance, said his heart medication alone cost RM6,000 a year.
"That does not include health supplements and other medication like for cholesterol that I take," he said.
"If drug prices are not controlled, it is as good as letting people die."
Salesgirl Norliza Sharif, 36, said she spent a bulk of her salary on medication for herself and her family.
"Medication costs me RM300 (S$114) a month - and, that's a lot for me," said Norliza, whose income depended on the sales she made.
She said retirees and even those with insurance would suffer because their coverage limit might not be sufficient.
"I'm really worried because of my medical history, I cannot upgrade my policy or purchase a new insurance plan," said Norliza, who has a spinal problem.
Businessman John Matthew said he relied on generic diabetic drugs as branded medication cost double.
"Most branded drugs are imported so when the value of the ringgit drops, the price jumps," he said.
"The generic drug industry, however, is very competitive and in some cases, prices actually drop. So, I don't understand why some patients here are still insisting on branded medicine.
"Whether you are driving a Proton or an Audi, you will still reach your destination. It's the same with medication.
"Patients have to do their homework - ask the pharmacists."
Retired teacher K.C. Chan is thankful that the Parkinson's medication she gets monthly from the pharmacy is paid for by the Government.
"Otherwise, I would have to fork out RM1,026 monthly," she said.
Drug prices here are still among the lowest in the region, the Pharmaceutical Association of Malaysia insists.
While admitting that some drugs "may be pricier now" because of factors like higher currency exchange, PhAMA president Yew Wei Tarng said that "overall drugs in Malaysia are still cheaper than in neighbouring countries".
PhAMA represents 44 drug companies.
According to Yew, it was unfair to say that the whole pharmaceutical industry had raised prices.
"We know of companies that have not raised prices in years," he said.
"Based on a recent industry survey, the turnover growth up to September is only 3.15 per cent," he added.
Yew said the association had no jurisdiction over pricing and trade terms, and could not tell the drug companies how much to charge.
"But a supplier who raises the quantum by high percentages will eventually be priced out of competition," he said.
Health Ministry director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the pharmaceutical services division met Malaysian Community Pharmacy Guild representatives on Nov 26.
"We discussed the standardisation and benchmarking of drug prices and how to offer more value with less cost," he said.
"We also looked at price negotiation and pharmacy economics to make sure that drugs are accessible," he said.
On Thursday, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr S. Subramaniam said 4,200 brands of essential medicine would be exempted from the Goods and Services Tax.
He, however, said it was possible that the cost of medical care would increase by between 1 per cent and 2 per cent when the GST comes into effect in April.