Latin America Takes on Big Pharma

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Colorful pills in capsule form and tablet form

Generic pills / Shutterstock / Creative Commons

For the past decade, Latin America has attempted to reduce the prices of high-cost medications through either joint negotiations, pooled procurement, or both, but so far with limited success.  The incentive for reducing prices is that all Latin American countries have national health care systems, and in some cases (such as Colombia and Uruguay) are legally obligated to provide their citizens with any required medication free of charge and regardless of cost.

  • In the bigger countries, such as Brazil and Mexico, the prices for certain pharmaceutical products and medical devices for public-sector purchase at the federal, state, and even municipal level are negotiated by a single governmental entity. Argentina, Chile, and Mexico also have mechanisms for pooled procurement of public-sector health-related purchases at all levels of government.  Given its huge internal market, Brazil also unilaterally caps prices on medications and threatens to issue compulsory licenses to extract concessions from pharmaceutical multinationals.

Latin American countries have also tried turning to sub-regional mechanisms to protect themselves from excessively high prices, albeit with meager results.

  • The Central American Integration System (SICA) has the most active regional mechanism to negotiate the prices of high-cost drugs and medical devices. The governments of Belize, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama have authorized the Council of Central American Ministers of Health (COMISCA) to negotiate lower prices on their behalf.  Those medications and devices that obtain a reduction are then acquired by the public sector utilizing each government’s procurement procedures.  By negotiating as a bloc, the SICA countries report total savings of about US$60 million on dozens of products since the initiative began in 2010.
  • In late 2015, MERCOSUR launched a mechanism to negotiate prices for both the full and associate member states. Since those 12 countries coincided with UNASUR’s membership, that entity was given a supporting role to create a continental data bank of pharmaceutical prices paid by each member government that would be used to support the MERCOSUR negotiations.  That data bank proved to be ineffective, however, as not all countries submitted the required information and the methodologies for determining prices was inconsistent.  To date, MERCOSUR has only obtained price reductions for one HIV medication, manufactured by an Indian firm eager to establish a market presence in South America, and reportedly for an immunosuppressive drug used after organ transplants to lower the risk of rejection.  Reduction offers by Gilead for its Hepatitis C cure have, so far, been rejected by the MERCOSUR governments as inadequate.

MERCOSUR’s limited achievements appear to have encouraged individual countries to press on alone.  Colombia, while initially supporting the MERCOSUR initiative as an associate member, eventually established its own national mechanism to negotiate prices, and in July 2017 announced that it had obtained cost savings of up to 90 percent for three Hepatitis C treatments.  MERCOSUR’s sparse track record also helps to explain why Chile’s Minister of Health announced in October 2018 that his country, Argentina, Colombia, and Peru would utilize the Strategic Fund of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to purchase 10 state-of-the art cancer treatments.  Because of PAHO’s annual bulk purchases, it is often able to obtain significant price reductions from pre-qualified manufacturers and suppliers that are then passed on to member governments.  Member states facing a public health emergency can also make purchases without cash in hand, as the Strategic Fund will extend a short-term loan at no interest.  In the future, the Latin American countries are likely to pragmatically utilize a range of options in trying to contain the rising costs of new medications that include both national and regional mechanisms as well as PAHO’s Strategic Fund.  The challenge will be to avoid Big Pharma “red lining” the region and excluding it from accessing the most innovative medical cures such as gene therapies that can fetch a million-dollar price tag per treatment.

February 19, 2019

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is president of New York City-based Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and a lecturer at Stanford University.  He is the author of Bush II, Obama, and the Decline of U.S. Hegemony in the Western Hemisphere (New York: Routledge, 2018).