MANILA, JUNE 17, 2008
(STAR) By Des Ferriols - The country’s foreign exchange surplus trickled down to $42 million in May from $499 million in April, bringing the five-month cumulative total to a $2.4-billion surplus.

The Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) reported yesterday the balance of payments remained in surplus position due to continued, albeit slower, foreign exchange inflows into the country.

BSBP Governor Amando M. Tetangco Jr. said inflows came from remittances, net foreign direct investments, merchandize imports and income from BSP’s investments abroad.

The May surplus, however, was low compared with the monthly surplus recorded in May 2007 which was pegged at $665 million.

This year’s five-month cumulative surplus, however, was lower than last year’s surplus level of $2.365 over the same period.

Tetangco said the BSP expects the high cost of oil imports and lower foreign exchange inflows to erode the country’s balance of payments surplus this year.

Tetangco said the surplus is likely to settle at around $2.5 billion by the end of the year, down 70 percent from $8.6 billion last year and about 26 percent less than originally expected.

Tetangco said the country’s gross international reserve is projected to hit between $36.5 and $37 billion.

Central bank officials said the 70 percent drop in the

surplus would be caused by the wholesale withdrawal of foreign portfolio investments from emerging markets as well as the slowdown in exports and foreign direct investments.

Holding up the surplus were remittances from overseas Filipino workers whose steady inflows continued to boost the country’s international reserves.

The balance of payments reflects the country’s transactions with the rest of the world paid out of the gross international reserves.

The BSP’s original BOP projection was already conservative but Tetangco said estimates needed to be adjusted further to account for the impact of the turmoil in the financial markets and the rapid increase in food and oil prices.

Cheaper Medicines Act: A welcome relief TAKIN’ CARE OF BUSINESS By Babe Romualdez Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Many Filipinos, particularly the marginalized poor, heaved a collective sigh of relief when GMA signed the “Cheaper and Quality Medicines Act” into law. This piece of legislation – which many sectors believe has been a long time coming – will help ease the suffering of people by making medicines more affordable. All over the world, healthcare is one of the most pressing issues, even in the United States. The prohibitive cost of medicines has often resulted in people needlessly dying because treatable diseases eventually degenerate into more serious illnesses simply because the patient could not afford to buy the needed antibiotics.

The new law allows the parallel importation of patented drugs from countries (like India and Pakistan) where these medicines are sold much cheaper than in the Philippines. The country has been conducting parallel importation through the Philippine International Trading Corp. (PITC) – which had come under fire from some multinational drug firms for obvious reasons. But whether pharmaceutical giants like it or not, making medicines more affordable is the call of the times especially since people are already reeling from the skyrocketing prices of fuel, food and other basic commodities.

While the bill – with Mar Roxas being one of the main proponents – has been signed into law, many are saying the final version could have been stronger. Teddy Boy Locsin told me the bill has been a watered down version of the original with the deletion of certain provisions. But Mar insists he will not allow anything, “not even a comma” out of place in the implementing rules and regulations (IRR) to dilute the efficacy of the bill. The Department of Health has been tasked to draft the IRR and it’s expected that affected parties will be lobbying so that interpretation of provisions will not adversely affect their interests. A House-Senate oversight committee will also be monitoring the issuance and implementation of the IRR.

Whatever it is, anything that’s cheaper will always be welcome news to Filipinos, especially since no one knows where this global recession is headed. While government has launched programs to give subsidies to the poor, these will not last long and will hardly make a dent in the long run. Add to that the problems of global warming and pollution which is making a lot of people sick. According to a recent study covering 1996 to 2004 conducted by professors at the University of Birmingham in England, hundreds of thousands have died of pneumonia because of pollution. A significant number also died of peptic ulcers, coronary diseases, lung and stomach cancers and other illnesses associated with pollution from combustion emissions, smoking and drinking.

Other important provisions of the new bill include the “early working principle” which permits local companies to test, produce and register their generic versions of patented drugs earlier so they could be sold as soon as the patents expire. Last year, Thailand launched its own “drug war” when it broke patents on drugs for the treatment of HIV and heart diseases. Pharmaceutical companies accused the Thai government of violating intellectual property rights laws, but Thailand stood firm, issuing compulsory licensing for the production of generic versions and saying the move will improve the health of people and give them more access to essential medicines. The drug companies blinked, announcing substantial cuts on their prices.

One concern shared by many is that the quality of medicines might be compromised with parallel importation and the amendment of the intellectual property code. However, legislators pointed out that groups engaged in parallel importation will be required to register with the Bureau of Food and Drugs. The new law will also give the president the power to impose price ceilings on various drugs, including those for chronic illnesses, for preventing diseases and those listed in the essential drugs list of the National Drug Formulary. Workers’ unions welcomed the provisions, saying laborers need maintenance medicines to keep healthy but they have been saddled by high prices.

To the credit of some multinational drug firms, a number of them have been implementing measures to help Filipinos with the rising cost of medicines even before the passage of the Cheaper Medicines act. One of them is British firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) with its ValueHealth Program where prices of certain commonly used medications have been lowered. This is probably one reason why the pharma company has been getting a lot of good breaks. A recent finding from two, large-scale independent trials revealed that GSK’s diabetes medication rosiglitazone maleate (which goes by the brand name Avandia) was not associated with increased risks for heart attacks and cardiovascular deaths. Doctors who prescribe rosiglitazone maleate for the treatment of patients suffering from type 2 diabetes certainly found the trial results reassuring, considering that cardiovascular problems complicate the management of diabetes.

Cardiovascular disease remains the number one killer not only in the Philippines but in most parts of the world. Experts say controlling blood pressure, blood sugar and lowering cholesterol levels are critical factors in managing the disease. Lifestyle changes are also required, which include exercising for at least 30 minutes every day. Limiting alcoholic drinks, getting enough potassium by eating a lot of fruits and vegetables, lowering salt intake, managing stress and non-smoking or avoidance of people who smoke are just some of the suggested lifestyle changes. While lowering drug prices will enable more Filipinos to afford treatment for both common and potentially fatal illnesses and help government achieve its objective of a “healthier Philippines,” at the end of the day, it is one’s habits and lifestyle that can still largely determine the state of one’s health. It certainly won’t hurt to follow the age-old advice of applying moderation in everything.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved