Cost of medical supplies ‘unjustifiable’ in Switzerland

If Swiss buy their medication across the border, they can't reclaim the cost on their health insurance Keystone

Medical supplies are up to four times more expensive in Switzerland than in neighbouring countries, according to an investigation by Swiss public television, RTS, shown on Sunday.

This content was published on September 19, 2016 - 10:59,

When it comes to global health costs, Switzerland ranks second behind the United States. While tariffs on medicine play a part, the main reason is the cost of medical equipment.

For example, blood glucose test strips used by diabetics go for CHF87.60 ($89.50) on the Swiss market but only CHF40 in France or Germany. However, if patients were to buy their medication across the border, they wouldn’t be able to reclaim the cost on their health insurance.

At the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), where almost 7% of the budget is dedicated to medical supplies, fighting excessive tariffs has become a daily battle.

“When you contact a foreign manufacturer, as soon as they identify you as the central buyer for university hospitals, they systematically send you to the Swiss manufacturer so they can charge Swiss prices,” Ricardo Avvenenti, head of the central purchasing organisation for biomedical engineering for Vaud-Geneva, told the Mise au Point news programme.

While Avvenenti says a price difference of 15-20% would be acceptable, it’s “unjustifiable” for certain medical devices to be four or five times more expensive in Switzerland than in the rest of Europe.

‘Excessively high prices’

Armin Schrick, vice-president of the Swiss Federation of Medical Technology, pointed out that this wasn’t true for all medical devices, “plus there are eight million people in Switzerland in Switzerland and 80 million in Germany – as a result the hospitals buy different volumes”.

However, the Swiss price watchdog isn’t convinced. “People pay excessively high prices,” said Stefan Meierhans. “That has repercussions on our health premiums and everyone suffers. It’s a market that doesn’t function like others. It needs to be regulated and it’s there that holes exist.”

For its part, the Federal Office of Public Health says potential savings are significantly overestimated in the political debate. However, the office’s vice-president Olivier Peters admitted that “price reductions remain possible” and the government “would do better”.

For blood glucose test strips alone, the potential savings amount to CHF50 million, estimates Santésuisse, the Swiss medical insurer’s association.

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