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Disparity in medicine prices sparks debate in Belgium

This article was originally published in Scrip

Executive Summary

On average patients in Belgium pay 50% more for their medicines than patients in the Netherlands, according to the Belgian organisation, Platform for Action for Health and Solidarity. The organisation recently conducted a price comparison whereby individuals bought their medicines in Belgium and then crossed the border to buy the same drug in the Netherlands.

The organisation found that there was a significant difference in price. For example, Johnson & Johnson/MSD's Zocor (simvastatin), the most commonly prescribed drug for reducing cholesterol, was five to seven times more expensive in Belgium than in the Netherlands. The drug most commonly prescribed to counteract stomach acid, AstraZeneca's Losec (omeprazole), was nine to 17 times more expensive in Belgium. The organisation achieved its goal of highlighting this discrepancy to the public, as several Belgian newspapers are now asking when prices will be reduced in Belgium.

Belgian protesters join the debate on the price difference
(Source:Plate-forme d'action santé et solidarité)

The price discrepancies are mainly down to the two countries' different reimbursement models, says the organisation. Last July the Netherlands adopted the approach taken by New Zealand, known as the "Kiwi" model. Under this system the cheapest of each type of drug is fully reimbursed to the patient. In Belgium, the government assesses a wide range of drugs and provides different levels of reimbursement for different drugs. A spokeswoman for the Platform explained that it would like to see a system similar to the "Kiwi" model implemented in Belgium to allow a reduction in medicine prices. The Belgian organisation, Medicine for the People, believe this is particularly important as it claims that 1 in 3 Belgians struggle to pay for medical care.

Pharma.be, Belgium's pharmaceutical industry association, takes a different stance, claiming that specialised pharmaceuticals are in fact 15% more expensive in the Netherlands. A spokesman described the comparisons carried out by the Platform as unfair and unhelpful because the two countries have completely different systems.

The association also explained that the sale of medicines financed Belgium's thriving research-based pharmaceutical industry. Therefore, the adoption of the "Kiwi" model would have a negative impact on this industry and the 29,000 jobs that it creates, it said. In addition it stated that the Belgian system gave doctors more choice when prescribing, enabling them to take the specific needs of individual patients into account.

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