Meet your new, legalized big-time neighborhood drug pusher
AS I WRECK THIS CHAIR By William M. Esposo
The Philippine Star 2008-01-27

Hercule Poiroit, the Agatha Christie detective novel central character, would always look for the motive in ferreting out the criminal behind the crime. In the controversial ‘GENERICS ONLY’ provision of the House Cheaper Medicines Bill, lo and behold – there emerged an identified profiteer.

Big questions are being raised on the alleged primary author of the ‘GENERICS ONLY’ provision of the Cheaper Medicines Bill in the House of Representatives – Representative Ferjenel Biron of Iloilo. Biron made his millions importing cheap medicines from India and Pakistan and even now continues to do so.

Biron is sharp at spotting opportunity. When some local Indians forgot to renew the name of their organization – the Filipino-Indian Chamber of Commerce – Biron reportedly promptly sought SEC approval for the name. This gave him trading leverage to import drugs from India.

Now, I am told that Biron, chairman of the Fil-Indian Chamber, is starting to shift to China to downplay the Indian card. Former Rep. Rolex Suplico, another principal actor in the House’s cheaper medicines bill, is the vice-chair of the chamber. Per reliable sources, Suplico used to be the lawyer of Pharmawealth.

Before he joined politics, Biron was president and CEO of Pharmawealth Laboratories, Inc., the first and largest Filipino Multi-Facility Injectable Plant in the country. He was also the president and CEO of Phil. Pharmawealth Inc., the biggest trading house of human pharmaceutical injections in the Philippines representing 50 foreign manufacturers worldwide. He is also the founder of Ferj’s Pharmacy Drugstore chain in Iloilo City.

Biron’s business flourished between 1998 and 2003, the time when Ireneo Galicia became legal officer of BFAD. A Google search of Ireneo M. Galicia will bring you to the website of the California bar which lines his name among those who had been disbarred. He came to the Philippines after his disbarment for misconduct, failure to promptly notify a client of receipt of funds, properly maintain client funds, return client files or cooperate with the bar’s investigation, and for committing acts of moral turpitude.

Biron’s natural enemies are of course the multinational companies and doctors who would naturally oppose anything that they believe would risk their patient’s health and safety.

It was Biron who ‘exposed’ the supposed lobby of multinational drug companies to media and who keeps the issue alive whenever this served his purpose. This ploy effectively kept media away from multinational drug companies, for fear that they’ll be suspected of receiving bribes.

The doctors are painted so unfairly as beholden to pharmaceutical companies who sponsor their participation in medical conventions abroad.

This happens even to the best of media practitioners. When a conference overseas happens to be a legitimate media event, media often accepts the invitation, no strings attached.

Obviously, the House bill will want to make it easy for cheap imported drugs to flood the market, especially when there is a hefty profit to be made. What better way than to prohibit doctors from prescribing branded medicine? This, after all, is business. Who said that this was about people’s health and safety?

The attacks on multinational drug companies and their brands had also lured the more militant sectors in Congress, who found a venue for their anger against multinationals (seen by them as greedy predators). But I find it strange that they seem to ignore the big picture ­— specifically the risks with sub-standard or fake medicines.

The big picture is that public health and safety must be the primary concern. If we want to make medicines affordable to everyone, we must first make sure these alternatives meet quality standard. To do this, we must encourage a national drug or generics industry and we must first set the infrastructure in place to test and certify quality.

But unfortunately, our poorly staffed, and poorly funded Bureau of Food and Drug Administration is riddled with inefficiencies and yes, even politics. A report issued by Ibon Inc., revealed that “BFAD has yet to fully prosecute and shut down any erring manufacturers and importers. The dismal record of the BFAD legal office extends to their inability to supply updates on which companies have been penalized.”

IBON adds: “Moreover, it does nothing to educate unsuspecting consumers who are being kept ignorant of the current state of matters that primarily concerns them.”

It is BFAD’s inadequacy to assure a credible quality check on imported or generic medicines that makes doctors wary about generic drugs. Doctors rely on their patients’ trust and they will not want to put their patient’s health on the line.

If Biron is really forthright, he should also come clean on the incidents where drugs imported by his Pharmawealth had been under investigation.

One case was in Bayombong, Nueva Vizcaya, in 2005 when the governor ordered a probe into a complaint of government doctors about low cost generics after discovering glass shards inside a sealed vial of an injectable drug. The label showed it was manufactured by Samarth Pharma pvt, ltd. based in Bombay India and distributed by Philippine Pharmawealth Inc., Biron’s company.

In contrast, the Senate version authored by Mar Roxas and aptly called “Quality, Affordable Medicines Act” has a more studied, impassionate approach. It does not have the emotional finger-pointing, mudslinging, scapegoat-hunting stance of its House counterpart. And most important of all, it does not stink of ulterior motive, greed and evil.

We must prevent the House drug mafia from pushing their agenda. Let’s not be lulled into complacency by the DoH claim that it is withdrawing the controversial provision.

The proposal to set up a multi-agency drug price regulatory board with immense powers will turn this new drug mafia into some kind of a huge cartel-consortium larger than all the MNC drug companies combined.

The only difference will be the fact that, unlike multinational companies, they are not signatories to anti-graft and corrupt practices acts and, unlike companies with global reputations to uphold, they do not need to have a strict code of standards and ethics.

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