GST gives pharmacists and patients a headache

Dia Rekhi @ Chennai

Pharmacies are grappling with a shortage of medicines as a result of the recently implemented Goods and Services Tax. Many customers are having to go back empty-handed while others are stocking up on their regular medication, if it is available, so that their course isn’t disrupted.

Under the GST regime, most medicines are expected to be taxed at 12%, while essential drugs including insulin will be taxed at 5%. However, there is a churn happening at both the wholesale and retail level, that is affecting businesses and customers alike.

“It is quite a grave situation,” said a pharmacist based in Vepery, on the condition of anonymity. “A number of medicines are not available and no one seems to know what is happening. Of the 12 distributors that I get my stocks from, only three have medicines readily available.”

These pharmacists are at the receiving end of not just the big GST blow but also the disappointment and helplessness of patients.

“I have so many customers coming but hardly any medicines to sell,” said V Magesh, a pharmacist in Mylapore. “I know just how necessary a medicine can be for patients and the government should either have prepared us better for the transition or done it in a phased manner. In his rush to reform, the Prime Minister should not forget that things cannot change overnight.”

Most of the pharmacists in the city have been selling drugs at the old rates without adding the current levy. However, they do not know how long they will be able to keep up this practice as they feel they are the ones at the losing end.

“We are really in a fix,” said another pharmacist in Adyar. “We don’t have the medicines with the new rates neither can we add the levy to the old stocks and sell it to customers. How are we expected to run a business in this environment? Sure, GST will be great in the long run but who will reimburse us for the losses in the interim?”

However, the customer are the ones facing the hardest time. For Sheila Bedi, who lives in Dubai and was in India recently, GST was a spoke in the wheel as she banks on getting her medication on her visit to India.

“My medication is not available in Dubai,” said Bedi. “I am on long term treatment which is why I purchase medicines for a six month course when I am in India. This time though I could not because my regular supplier could not arrange the medicines in time because of a shortage due to GST.”

Bedi, however, managed to find a pharmacist who had some stock so she bought enough to last her for four months. “I don’t know what I will do once it runs out,” she said. “Either I will have to make a trip to India or it will have to be sent through someone as most courier services don’t accept medication. It will be a real task but will have to be done because the medication is a necessity.”

Another patient, Shankar*, was not able to get his medication for diabetes in any of the pharmacies near his home.

“None of the pharmacies in Neelankarai seem to have my medicine,” Shankar said. “My doctor is in Vannandurai so I am rushing there now. I generally take six tablets of which I got four, I will hopefully get the other two at the pharmacy near the doctor’s clinic.”

Shankar* bought enough medication to last him over a month. “I don’t trust Modi. He keeps springing up surprises, yesterday it was demonetization, today it is GST, tomorrow God knows what else he will say! In the bargain, my health should not suffer!”

NOTE: *Name changed on request

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