I welcome the Bill, which is a commitment by the Government to make radical changes to all sectors of society. Something like this makes savings and makes drugs more available to individuals.
I commend the Minister on his successful negotiations with the pharmaceutical industry, the medical profession and the pharmacists. Currently, we are spending €1,900 million per annum on drugs and we hope to save approximately €135 million per annum over the next three years. This is very welcome.
We need to explain to the public exactly what is meant by generic drugs. The vast majority of people who will avail of this new system might not know what is meant by a generic drug. It is important that we communicate this information. The interchangeable list will be key. If an elderly person who has been used to a drug for a long period is told they can now use a new drug, it must be clearly explained that the new prescription is not for a different drug but for the same drug under a different name. For example, Ventolin and Airomir are both used in the treatment of asthma but they have the same active ingredient, which is salbutamol. When people know the key part of two drugs is the same, irrespective of the name of the drug, they will understand the system better.
The saving made by the new system is a key factor, but we must also be aware of the fear factor. A customer may be concerned if a pharmacist offers an alternative drug and may be worried that the drug being offered does not have the proper active ingredient or the correct percentage of the active ingredient. While the Bill, and the savings it will make, are welcome there must be a huge communication programme so people, particularly elderly people, are not confused when they are offered an alternative drug. Doctors must be involved in explaining this to patients. They have the trust of their patients. The involvement of doctors will make the scheme easier and more understandable.
The Minister can review the list regularly every three years or more often. This is important. New drugs are coming onto the market all the time. A new drug may be an improvement on an existing drug but may be more expensive because it is still under patent. We need to be able to put these new drugs, which will improve the health of patients, on the list more quickly than at present. I realise that will mean an additional cost, but if we can save money on one side we should use that saving to make improved drugs available more quickly.
I reiterate what Deputy Regina Doherty said about anti-epilepsy drugs. With other Deputies, I attended a talk given by Brainwave, the Irish epilepsy association. Minute changes in generic drugs can have a serious implication for people on long-term anti-epilepsy drugs. It is important that we take the fears of the association into consideration.
I welcome the hard work done by the Minister and his Department on the Bill. This is something we should have done a long time ago. There was a fear that if we did something like this the pharmaceutical companies would shut up shop and leave. Most of us understand that the major pharmaceutical companies are here largely because we have a low rate of corporation tax, a highly skilled workforce and a readily available natural resource. For those reasons, we should not fear the use of generic drugs.
I welcome the hard work done in preparing the Bill. The health service will get better value for money and we may be able to use the money saved in other areas in the future.