IT'S about eight months since a new law kicked in which allows pharmacies to offer cheaper versions of drugs to patients. And though most people expected the price of drugs to come down, the reality on the ground is very different.
Before the law was introduced, if you were prescribed a branded drug by a doctor, you could not get a cheaper alternative because pharmacists were legally obliged to sell the exact medicine prescribed by your doctor. Pharmacies can now offer you the choice of buying a cheaper generic drug – or the more expensive brand.
However, a survey by the Sunday Independent found that many pharmacies are either charging the same price for generic drugs as they are for the branded versions – or they are charging only a few euro less.
If you're taking the well-known cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor, you'll pay about €11 for a 28-pack of 10mg tablets in Dublin pharmacies. Irish pharmacies charge the same for a generic equivalent of Lipitor – Torvacol costs €10.78 in some outlets, while other we visited charge €10.67 for Atorvastatin.
However, you can get a generic version of Lipitor much cheaper in McKeevers Chemist in Newry, Co Down – the price there is £5 (€6).
"There are a lot of manufacturers supplying generic drugs in Britain and that brings down the price of the drugs there – because there is competition," said Aidan McKeever, general manager of McKeevers Chemist.
"In Ireland, there may be only one or two manufacturers of a generic drug, and that doesn't foster competition."
In Spain, you can buy a 28-pack of the 10mg generic version of Lipitor for €4.61 – less than half of what you'll pay in some Irish pharmacies, according to Shane O'Sullivan, managing director of the Dublin pharmacy Healthwave.
Healthwave, which opened in Dundrum recently, says it sells generic prescription drugs at Northern Ireland prices – as long as you pay an annual subscription of €25.
Healthwave charges €4.95 for a 28-pack of 10mg Atorvastatin tablets (a generic version of Lipitor). It also charges €4.95 for a 28-pack generic version of 20Mg Nexium tablets – a drug used for stomach problems. You could pay between €13 and €14 for the generic version of Nexium in some Irish pharmacies – almost three times what you'll pay in Healthwave and the North. If you stick with the branded Nexium, you could pay about €22 for a pack in an Irish pharmacy.
"There seems to be only a couple of euro between the price of the branded drug and the price of the generic drug in a number of pharmacies," said O'Sullivan. "We feel generics should be a lot cheaper here."
Not all drugs have a generic version available in Ireland yet. And it is not always cheaper to buy drugs outside Ireland. In Germany for example, you could pay €54.19 for a 50-pack of 10mg Lipitor – that works out more expensive per tablet than what you'll pay in Ireland.
It is still worrying, however, that certain generic drugs are twice or three times as expensive in Ireland as they are in Northern Ireland and other European countries. For a patient paying hundreds of euro more a year for a drug than someone else in another country is, it is infuriating.
The Sunday Independent asked some of the main pharmacies and top pharmaceutical associations why the price of certain drugs in Ireland is a multiple of that charged elsewhere.
"In Ireland, the list price of prescription medicine is set by agreement between the pharmaceutical industry and the Department of Health," said a spokeswoman for Boots Ireland. "This is the case in all countries in the EU and means that the price of prescription medicines varies from country to country."
The pharmacy regulator, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland (PSI), said it could not comment because "it does not regulate the price of medicines".
A spokeswoman for the Irish Pharmaceutical Union, which represents community pharmacists, said the cost of medicines "is set by agreement between the Government and the manufacturers of medicines, including the generic manufacturers".
"This, in essence, means that pharmacists in Ireland have to purchase medicines at a higher cost than their counterparts in some other European countries," added the spokeswoman.
"It should be noted that the price of medicines has reduced and will continue to reduce."
We live in hope.
A fresh take on buying drugs online
IT can be cheaper to buy drugs online – so long as you shop around and deal with reputable companies.
You can buy over-the-counter drugs online in Ireland – but you cannot buy prescription medicine. Irish law prohibits companies from supplying prescriptions to Irish residents over the phone or internet.
Most EU countries have a similar ban for residents in their countries – but there are several exceptions.
The European Association of Mail Service Pharmacies (EAMOP) insists mail-order pharmacies are safe and "against illegal pharmaceutical pirates who put counterfeit drugs into circulation".
"For people who are elderly or immobile, or who live in rural areas, mail-order pharmacies are an important supply alternative," said the EAMOP.
It is this concern about cowboys supplying fake drugs which appears to be at the heart of the Irish ban on the online sale of prescription medicine.
"The ban on mail-order sales of pharmaceuticals was put in place because of concerns about the difficulty of guaranteeing the safety, efficacy and quality of mail-order supplies," said Deirdre McHugh, an economist with the Competition Authority.
There are cowboys selling drugs online and these should be avoided at all costs, particularly when health is concerned. But there are plenty of reputable pharmacists who sell prescriptions online safely.
For example, in Germany there are laws which assure the quality and efficacy of prescriptions sold online, according to Christian Splett, spokesman for the Federal Union of German Associations of Pharmacists, which represents about 60,000 pharmacists.
For example, a prescription must be packed and transported in a way that preserves the drug's quality. A prescription must also usually be posted within two days of an order being placed.
About two years ago, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) questioned whether an outright ban of prescription drugs is necessary.
"While internet and mail-order pharmacies pose well-known problems, a complete prohibition may not be the answer. If internet pharmacies can offer lower cost distribution in a safe manner . . . then the Health Service Executive should consider the viability of their use on a trial basis."
That argument still stands today.
Five key tips on the road to becoming a perfect landlord
If you're considering snapping up cheap property and becoming a landlord, the British property investor and author Vicki Wusche has five tips worth following:
* Don't be swayed by other people – do your own research. Start with areas you know, and research property prices and the potential rent you could earn on properties in particular areas.
* Interest rates will rise – so ensure you can afford the mortgage repayments on the property when they do.
Calculate the cost of the mortgage at higher interest rates so you know where you stand at the start.
* Underestimate your returns. Assume that you won't have tenants for between two and three months a year – you will do better than this but be cautious with your figures and expectations.
Set aside about one-fifth of your rental income in the first year to cover the cost of repairs and maintenance.
* Constantly monitor and manage your property once it is let. Drainpipes and gutters cost only a few euro to repair and fix – but can cost thousands if left to leak on the property.
* Aim to provide a long-term home for tenants – as this will encourage them to stay in the property and ensure you get your rental income.
For example, a family will want a garden. And a family home near a school will ensure your tenants are happy and want to stay.
Travellers get break with new EU laws
IF you're planning to jet off to the sun this year, you'll be happy to hear that EU lawmakers are pushing to bolster your rights
Earlier this month, the European Parliament called for stricter rules to make it easier for holidaymakers to claim compensation from airlines if they're stranded abroad.
It called for a ban on 'no-show' clauses in tickets – where airlines often cancel the return leg of a flight when a passenger does not turn up for the outward flight.
There are also plans to force airlines to compensate customers who miss connecting flights because their previous flight was late.
The new rules, however, will limit the amount of time airlines must provide accommodation to stranded passengers in the event of long-running problems, such as the volcanic ash cloud of 2010. Right to accommodation in such instances will be limited to five days.