A cure or a curse?

Thursday, 3 January 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Consumer Affairs Ministry is a beehive in the New Year. First cracking down on rotting vegetables, scarcely a day passes before a Gazette notification is issued giving a maximum retail price on drugs. Yet, how sustainable these actions are remains to be seen.

There has been no industry response as yet for the prices, but concern still remains on implementation, monitoring, and sustaining the charges. Is this yet another plaster move by the Government or can it bring real benefits to the consumer? Its past record is anything but confidence-inspiring.

Just last month the Auditor General observed that a stock of drugs purchased for Rs. 971 million last year had been declared to be of inferior quality, but the bulk of them had been issued to patients for treatment by that time.

According to news articles on his report, the Auditor General stated that a survey had not been conducted to find out the harm done to patients by the use of these drugs. Also, during the year under review, drugs valued at Rs. 4.1 billion had been purchased in the open market due to shortages in the Medical Supplies Division. In the process, a loss of Rs. 1.4 billion had been incurred.

In 2010 and 2011, Rs. 5,687,500 had been paid out by the health authorities as compensation to patients due to the failure to provide them with proper treatment. Despite the presence of systemic corruption within the health system, no steps have been taken to effectively deal with the cancer other than blacklisting a few companies.

Even though the Cabinet of Ministers had instructed health authorities to formulate guidelines to preclude problems that require the payment of such compensation, the Auditor General had noted that no action has been taken in this regard. Moreover, the implementation of the Seneka Bibile policies remains stagnant, despite many health authorities putting their faith in the framework.  

The report says that surgical consumables and drugs valued at Rs. 1.9 million and Rs. 3.3 million respectively had been rejected by the Medical Supplies Division. These items had been manufactured by the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC). The SPC has also been faulted by the Auditor General for not taking action to recover from a supplier the cost of amoxicillin capsules. This stock valued at Rs. 12 million had been found to be of substandard quality.

Regardless of repeated offences, the officials who compose the management of the SPC together with other responsible stakeholders are allowed to not just waste public funds, but place the lives of thousands of people on the line. Yet, despite all these serious transgressions, they are rarely called on to account. The Government insists that Sri Lanka is a democracy, but the true meaning of that goes beyond mere elections. It is about providing transparency and accountability to the public on where their hard-earned money goes and providing them with the best possible service.

Plans are afoot to start a dedicated pharmaceutical manufacturing zone to reduce costs of drug purchases, but without stronger regulations in place, the same wastage will be repeated.

There is much to be praised in Sri Lanka’s beleaguered health system, the very fact that it can somehow function while mired in corruption is one reason. But ultimately its greatest claim to popularity is as a prime example of the Government’s malfeasance.