China adds 33 drugs to its plan to offer patients more affordable treatment

Linda Lew

China has added another batch of medicines to a generic drug procurement programme that could slash drug prices by almost 60 per cent on average, as the country continues to overhaul its health care system to be more affordable.

The National Health Security Administration outlined 33 generic drugs for tender in a bid document released on Sunday. They included treatments for cancer, diabetes and other diseases.

Beijing is ramping up its health care reforms to address issues such as the high cost of treatment and unequal access to medical services. High drug prices have been a long-standing problem.

Since health care agencies were streamlined into the National Health Security Administration (NHSA) in 2018, there has been significant progress in making drugs more affordable for patients.

The administration launched a bulk procurement pilot of 25 generic drugs in 2018 for 11 cities. As a result, pricing has been cut by half on average and savings of about 5.8 billion yuan (US$830 million) have been achieved in drug costs, Xiong Xianjun, a senior official of the administration, said early this year.

Since April, the programme had been expanded to 25 provinces and brought reductions in bulk pricing by 59 per cent on average, according to the administration.

“The progress has exceeded expectations and [we have] received positive feedback from the public. The cost of drugs to patients has fallen significantly,” the agency said in a statement published in September.

The bid document released on Sunday changed the maximum number of companies eligible to win a bid from three in the pilot to six.

For bids won by four or more companies, they could supply as much as 80 per cent of the national market for that drug, the document said.

Franck Le Deu, a senior partner at consultancy McKinsey, said the new model showed that the government was experimenting with the procurement of drugs.

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“Clearly they are still feeling their way in and listening to feedback from the industry,” he said.

“The government is tinkering with the volume-based procurement model to find the right balance between competitive bidding and guarantee of quality supply.”

Other reforms that have benefited patients include those aimed at widening the coverage of medical insurance. In November, the NHSA added its largest batch of new products so far to its list of subsidised drugs, with the cost of many items more than halved.

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