Taiwan moves to cut reimbursement costs by switching 13 drugs to OTC

SINGAPORE--The Taiwan Food and Drug Administration has reclassified 13 commonly prescribed drugs to be available over-the-counter as of June as rising medical costs strain the country's reimbursement policies and threaten support for chronic care therapies that are more expensive.

Earlier this month, the Taiwan FDA reiterated the importance of pushing for responsible self-medication to save waiting time for patients and National Health Insurance spending. Currently, over-the-counter drugs account for only 6% of overall drug sales in Taiwan. The FDA plans to switch as many prescription drugs to over-the-counter as possible this year, in hopes of saving on other healthcare costs such as insurance premiums and hospital care.

"At the moment, we have approved the reclassification of prescription medications containing 13 kinds of ingredients, including painkillers, anti-allergy agents and gastrointestinal drugs," Li-ling Liu, director of the Taiwan FDA division of medical devices, said at a press conference on Jan. 22, according to the FDA. "The reclassification process is expected to be complete in June."

Although the approved drugs have been commonly used in Taiwan over the past decade without any history of potent ingredients or adverse reactions, there is no guarantee that consumers will have sufficient knowledge to use medications safely and responsibly.

The convenience in over-the-counter drug sales may bring a welcome change for pharmacies and drug vendors, but some nongovernmental organizations express concern. Unlicensed staff and assistants at pharmacies may not have the experience to identify risks for patients needing specific care or medication, such as the elderly, pregnant women and children.

The Taiwan FDA is working on producing easy-to-understand labeling and packaging for drugs approved for switching to over-the-counter sales. There are also supplementary plans to educate students about self-medication by including relevant information in elementary and junior-high school textbooks.

Physicians warn that improper use of medication that is deemed safe may lead to new side effects and serious healthcare consequences.

Division of Medicinal Products section head Heng-jung Lien estimates a saving of $6 in costs for the healthcare system for every $1 spent on over-the-counter drugs. With this push for self-medication, Taiwan's healthcare system will become more financially stable in the long run and deter another premium increase from the National Health Insurance.

The 13 drugs approved at the moment include aspirin, cetirizine, benzydamine, pantoprazole and azelastine. The 13 drugs treat mostly light symptoms such as allergies.

- here's the China Post story