July 9, 2019 / 7:46 PM / 14 days ago

UPDATE 1-France will end healthcare refunds for homeopathic drugs

(Updates with manufacturer reaction, petitions, details)

PARIS, July 9 (Reuters) - France will end social security reimbursements for homeopathic drugs and the new policy - which has drawn the fire of alternative medicine advocates - will take full effect in 2021, the healthcare minister said on Tuesday.

Earlier this year the French health watchdog recommended the move, citing what it said was the insufficient effectiveness of the drugs after an investigation into how they affected conditions such as anxiety or foot warts.

Healthcare Minister Agnes Buzyn told Le Parisien newspaper that there would be a phase-out period before 2021.

The government initially aims to cut refunds for the drugs from 30% of their cost to 15% as of January 2020 as a first step, she added. "That will give manufacturers time to get organised," Buzyn said.

France has long had a stronger attachment than many other countries to homeopathic drugs, which aim to treat patients with highly diluted substances, and is home to the world's biggest maker of the alternative medicine, Boiron.

Boiron criticised the plan earlier on Tuesday as rumours of the health ministry decision circulated, and it said it would fight the edict.

"Depriving French people of their freedom to choose (their treatment) is totally misaligned with the demands and needs of patients," Boiron said in a statement, adding it had been due to meet Buzyn this Thursday and was shocked by the decision.

Stopping the refunds would hit the company and the broader sector involved in manufacturing the alternative drugs, Boiron said. Some 60% of its own business came from France, and its suppliers and staff might be affected, it added.

The impending move had sparked various online petitions calling for the welfare refunds to stay in place, including one on Change.org last year as the policy review loomed that drew over 46,000 backers.

A dedicated online campaign platform against the reimbursement changes - set up by Boiron, other firms and several patient and medical professional groups - obtained over 1.2 million signatures.

Buzyn said she took full responsibility for a measure that might prove unpopular, and denied that the primary aim of the plan was to save 127 million euros ($142.30 million) in social security payouts.

She estimated that some 7 million French people, or just over 1% of the population, had used homeopathic drugs in 2018.

Boiron said in its statement that over half of people in France used the medicines. ($1 = 0.8925 euros) (Reporting by Sarah White and Simon Carraud; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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