Having spent over three decades practising Oncology in the US and India, Dr BS Ajaikumar is hardly one for the limelight. Just last month, however, Dr Ajaikumar, chairman and CEO of Healthcare Global Enterprises (HCG), India’s largest private chain of cancer hospitals, found himself the villain of the piece on social media.
He was branded “morally bankrupt” for challenging a government price control order in court. An unpopular move, given that the government order is expected to benefit 22 lakh cancer patients in the country and lead to annual savings in the ballpark of Rs 800 crore ($114 million) for the affected people.
Dr Ajaikumar, though, isn’t fazed by the criticism. “My patients know what I am. I am fighting this case based on principles. If I cared about optics, I wouldn’t have come this far,” he says candidly, seated in his plush corporate office in Bengaluru. Indeed, his opposition to the government order aside, it is hard to see the man as an antagonist. On the walk to his conference room, for example, it’s impossible to miss the pictures of cancer patients served by HCG that hang on a thread within one of the various many cabins.
“I came to India with a vision—to make cancer care accessible,” he says, matter-of-factly. Bengaluru-headquartered HCG, which he founded in 1998, now has 26 centres across the country. Each year, the chain provides advanced cancer care to 75,000 new patients and 500,000 follow up cases.
Yet, as we sit across from each other, it’s clear to both of us that Dr Ajaikumar is decidedly unpopular with the masses. Here’s why: In a bid to help cancer patients reeling under high treatment costs, the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA), India’s apex pharmaceutical pricing authority, capped the trade margins of 42 non-scheduled cancer drugs at 30% on 27 February. This brought down the retail prices of many brands of cancer medication by up to 87%. This came into effect on 8 March.
February’s price-capping is in addition to 57 cancer drugs that were already under price control as scheduled formulations. All told, this accounts for some 517 brands whose prices have been capped. After the latest order, while 73 are priced above Rs 10,000, the vast majority—434 brands—are priced below Rs 10,000. A single 60mg injection of the drug cabazitaxel under the brand name Arbaz, for example, has seen its price slashed 73.85%—from Rs 48,000 to Rs 12,552. This is the order that HCG has challenged.
But if Dr Ajaikumar claims to be about cancer access, and the price-capping is seemingly pro-access, then what explains the HCG head’s opposition?