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Health Ministry in dark on life-saving drugs made costlier

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New Delhi: In a typical example of the government’s one arm not knowing what other arm is doing, the Health Ministry has been taken aback by the Finance Ministry last month withdrawing the custom duty exemption on imports of at least 75 drugs, including the life-saving ones used to treat cancer, AIDS and haemophilia.

The Health Ministry sources claim the medicines fall under its domain but the Finance Ministry did not consult it before issuing the notification that came to public notice only after Biocon CMD (chairman and managing director) Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw and Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s political secretary flagged it on Twitter.

Kiran asked: “Is this the phasing out of exemptions by MoF (Ministry of Finance)? Sad.” Her tweet: “Govt has introduced 22 per cent import tax on cancer and life saving drugs, previously exempted.” Ahmed Patel tweeted: “So Acche Din is when govt observes World Cancer Day by making life saving drugs more expensive.”


The decision may be reversed as the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has intervened and asked the Health Ministry to set up a panel of experts for a scientific study of the impact of withdrawal of the tax exemption on the essential drugs.

The ministry sources said but for the finance ministry keeping it in dark, such a study should have preceded any decision on the custom duty, particularly when the Modi government is committed to the policy of providing affordable drugs to the people and cut down out of pocket expenditure.

The notification was issued by the Department of Revenue on January 28, withdrawing exemption from custom duty on a number of drugs that now entails a duty of 22 per cent.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, who heads 37-year old biopharmaceutical company Biocon based in Bengaluru, expressed concern that the notification will also impact drugs being manufactured in SEZs, thus “adversely impacting the government’s aim of making healthcare affordable and accessible to patients in India.”

Apart from cancer, AIDS and haemophilia, the notification makes treatment of a multitude of diseases costlier and these include diabetes, kidney stones, hearth rhythm disorders, Parkinson’s Disease, bone diseases, bacterial infections, anesthetic medication, allergies, arthritis, lupus, menopause complications, glaucoma, ulcerative colitis, growth failure in children and poisoning by a chemical or pesticide.