Last Thursday, the commotion at the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee reached new heights. Dozens of pharmacists accompanied by an army of lobbyists turned the committee into bedlam. Their aim: to scuttle a proposed drugs price cut.
Surprisingly, all these expensive lobbyists failed, and on Sunday the reform in pharmaceutical prices passed a first reading in the committee, headed by Yair Peretz (Shas), who supported the reforms. But the lobbyists are not waving the white flag. Immediately after the vote was counted, they broke into the meeting and armed with flyers setting forth their reservations, besieged the MKs with the goal of shooting down the reform on the last battlefield: second and third readings in the Knesset. After all, one good reservation can turn the law upside down, from an important social law into a laughingstock.
The whole story began because of the high price of over-the-counter drugs such as pain killers, antacids and even cold remedies. Why is the price of these drugs in the United States half that in Israel? Because, over there, they have competition. Over there, over-the-counter drugs are sold at every neighborhood supermarket.
In New York or London, if you have a headache in the middle of the night, you don't have to hunt for an on-duty doctor on the other side of town. All you have to do is step outside to your local 24-hour corner shop and buy a painkiller - that's it. The result is intense competition among the various manufacturers and the multitude of sales points, because once consumers can survey the items on the shelf and inspect prices, they can compare costs and make an educated purchase - and that's a bitter pill for our pharmacists to swallow.
That's the reason the Finance Ministry is trying to pass a law that would enable non-prescription drugs to be sold at supermarkets. But the pharmacists object because non-prescription drugs are their main source of income; and we can feel that in our pockets.
The amusing thing about the whole story is that the pharmacists are telling the public that their purpose is to "protect the public's health." A fairy tale whispered in MKs' ears by paid lobbyists.
"The new law does nothing to harm the public's health," the director of Ichilov Hospital, Gabi Barabash, scoffs at this patronizing pretension. His position is supported by the director general of the Ministry of Health, Boaz Lev.
But none of this has stopped Howard Rice, a pharmacist and veteran apparatchik who published the following advertisement in the press: "Finance Minister, your plan to make drugs freely available for sale in supermarkets without pharmaceutical supervision could lead to loss of life ... a small child wandering the isles of a supermarket could go up to the drugs shelf, drink an entire bottle of strawberry flavored syrup containing Paracetemol (the generic name for Acamol) and might die, or at least have to undergo a liver transplant." Whatever comes first, Mr. Rice.
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