The Supreme Court of India has directed the central government to make sure that medicines will continue to be available at reasonable prices as it looks to come out with a new pricing policy in November.
The government informed the court that the new National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy would be decided by mid-November and notified in the subsequent week. The judges cautioned that the policy should not trigger any hike in the price of drugs.
Appearing for the central government, Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Sidharth Luthra informed the court about the government decision in response to persistent queries by the apex court.
A bench of Justice G.S. Singhvi and Justice S.J. Mukhopadhaya asked the government not to disturb the price formula of 1995.
"Are you going to give an undertaking that the prices of drugs would not increase as available in the market," the court said.
"We are more concerned with the price (of the medicines). One can understand the economics of the manufacturer. But the substantial issue is the availability of the drugs at reasonable price," the court said.
"We have only said that the government should come out with policy beneficial to the people and should not result in hike in dug prices," the court observed.
The government's response came after the court made its displeasure known in no uncertain terms over its failure to categorically respond to its Oct 3 order seeking to know the time by which it would take a decision on the medicine pricing policy.
Luthra said that an empowered group of ministers had recommended inclusion of 348 drugs in the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM) and a cabinet note on it would be sent Oct 15.
The court said the pricing mechanism followed since 1995 should not be trifled with. However, the court said that its cap on drug prices should not affect normal hike on account of increase in cost of inputs like raw material, packaging, labour and other components.
The court ripped through the way the pricing issue was were dealt with by the government and said: "You constituted five expert committees. It can't be said that experts were unaware of the situation and the market practices."
As Luthra submitted that the matter had to take the legislative course of going through parliament, Justice Singhvi said: "The parliament is the best place to take the decision. Courts are not. But courts are entitled to tell you (government) to take decision and implement it."
"What did you do with the 2002 policy," the court asked, when it was told that the policy under its scanner was framed in 2002.
Luthra said that it was challenged. The court asked: "Was there an interim order (staying it). Why was it not implemented."
The court said: "We can't accept it", as the ASG said that it was being reframed and three-four committees were set up to look into it.
Observing that the "matter was not viewed with the serious attention that it deserved", the court asked: "Was it that unimportant that the concerned department and the ministry will not take the matter to cabinet?"
The court also questioned petitioner All India Drug Action Network and its senior counsel Colin Gonsalves for taking no initiative for the hearing of the matter as it rested for nine long years since 2003.
"The matter did not see the light of the day for seven years five months. It is such an important matter that court registry did not think it fit to list it. We hold Colin Gonsalves also responsible for not raising the matter," the court said.
The court would next hear the matter Nov 27.