There could be more to the rise in the cost and unavailability of medicines than meets the eye.
Although Zimbabwe is going through economic hardships, the way pharmacies are pegging the prices of drugs raises several questions.
A snap survey in Harare last week showed that whilst many the pharmacies are rejecting medical aid cards, there are also shocking disparities in pricing at retail outlets that demand payments exclusively in United States dollars.
In possession of a prescription, we visited pharmacies and asked for the cost of three antibiotics in Harare’s central business district. We also spoke to medical practitioners.
In one pharmacy, a huge notice greeted all who entered with the declaration that all payments were to be made in US dollars.
The three drugs on our prescription were pegged at US$22, US$18 and US$9.
Another pharmacy was selective on which medical aid cards it accepts.
The pharmacist then took our prescription and checked with the medical aid society if they would be willing to pay the total bill of US$125 for the three drugs.
After much consultation, the pharmacist informed us that the health insurer was willing to pay US$72, leaving us with a US$53 shortfall.
What was also quite telling was the difference in cost from one pharmacy to the next: a gap of US$76 for the exact same prescription.
It should be noted that at one of the pharmacies we visited, bond note/debit card payments were accepted, with the three drugs priced at a total of $64.
One general practitioner who has a pharmacy at his facility charged US$40 for the medicines.
So why do the prices vary so much from one retailer to the next? Why is it that some pharmacies can do business in bond notes or via debit cards while others say they will shut down if they do not insist on US dollar payments?
Health insurers say foreign currency shortages are behind the rise in the cost of drugs, which have escalated by as much as 70 percent.
Local manufacturers, who rely on imported inputs, are being forced to buy foreign currency on the black market, thereby raising cost of production.
The Association of Healthcare Funders of Zimbabwe, which groups medical aid societies, has said the insistence on US dollar payments is unfair on patients.
Zimbabwe imports around 80 percent of its pharmaceutical needs.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has made greater self-sufficiency in pharmaceuticals one of his Government’s priorities in the health sector.
Writing for The Sunday Mail last week, President Mnangagwa said, “We need foreign currency to import medicines. Foreign exchange earnings are a function of our ability to export.
“Therein lies the challenge. At no time has this turbulent link between the state of the economy and the availability of drugs and other pharmaceutical products in the country been so direct and impactful as in the past weeks during which our economy has registered sharp shocks and challenges.
“Although we are slowly creeping out of this economic trough, the negative impact this bad patch has had on the healthcare sector is still being felt. The drugs supply situation in the country had deteriorated, with many key drugs either unavailable, unaffordable or in short supply.
“In the majority of cases, these drugs which are mostly imported, were now being sold in hard currencies, thus adding an additional burden on the sick. This is unacceptable.”
He said there were things his Government was doing to “check, arrest and reverse these adverse developments”.
President Mnangagwa said these included improving foreign currency allocations to the health sector, dealing with the legacy debt of about US$27 million owed by private importers of drugs, and recapacitating the State’s NatPharm.
“NatPharm requires about US$60 million to stabilise the drug supply situation in the country.
‘‘This will be made available while we mobilise funds to retire the legacy debt so as to reopen relations with foreign suppliers,” the President said.