New Delhi: The government is planning to make it mandatory for pharmacies to display generic medicines conspicuously on separate shelves so that consumers can opt for low-cost alternatives to expensive branded drugs.

The Drugs Technical Advisory Board (DTAB) “agreed to keep a separate rack/shelf reserved solely for the storage of generic medicines in a part of the premises separated from other medicines, which shall be visible to consumers”, according to the minutes of a meeting held on 12 February.

Mint has reviewed the minutes of the meeting.

The government is also considering a proposal to allow pharmacists to sell a generic version of a drug if the doctor prescribes the branded alternative, two people aware of the matter said, adding that the change is likely to take some time as it requires amendments to the Drugs and Cosmetics Act.

“DTAB decided to take a step forward by allowing the pharmacists keep a separate rack to promote generic drugs,” said a senior official in the health ministry.

The government has been promoting generic drugs for a while now and its efforts gained momentum with Prime Minister Narendra Modi announcing plans to put in place a legal framework in April last year to ensure doctors prescribe generic medicines.

The government launched Jan Aushadhi Scheme in 2015 to make quality generic medicines available at affordable prices through outlets known as Jan Aushadhi Stores (JAS). Under the scheme, state governments are required to provide space in government hospital premises or any other suitable locations for JAS. As of now, such stores have 714 products available in the centres and the government proposes to increase the portfolio to 1,000 products by 31 March.

To promote generic drugs, DTAB earlier approved an amendment to Rule 96 of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act that sought changes in the labelling of medicines to boost sales of generic alternatives. Rule 96 deals with the manner of labelling drugs. “The change in label is another effort in the same direction. Not only are we encouraging doctors to write their prescriptions with generic names, consumers will be benefited if the generic name is legible and easy to read on the packs,”said another official in the ministry.

The government wants doctors to prescribe drugs by their chemical names in an effort to break the ‘doctor-big pharma’ nexus that often leads to prescription of high-cost medicines when cheaper options are available.

The Medical Council of India issued orders in 2016 to all central and state government hospitals asking them to ensure that doctors prescribe generic medicines.

The move assumes significance as, according to the World Health Organization, India features among the countries with the highest out-of-pocket expenditure on health care. Even the National Health Policy admits that 63 million people are pushed into poverty annually owing to health care expenses. “Medicines account for 70-75% of a household’s out-of-pocket expenditure on health. While generic medicines are also good quality medicines and cost much less, the doctor-chemist nexus often pushes people into buying more expensive alternatives,” added another person.

To push the use of low-cost generic medicines, even the draft pharmaceutical policy last year had proposed that public procurement and dispensing of medicines should be of generic drugs bearing the names of salts. The draft suggested a major shift where only the name of salts (active ingredients) would be displayed on the package. “Branded generic drugs are currently sold like other patented medicines, with their brand names displayed on the packaging. A manufacturer will only be allowed to stamp the company name and the generic name on the packaging and not the brand name,” the draft had proposed.