Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena again assured Parliament last Friday that legislation to implement the National Medicinal Drugs Policy (NMDP) based on Prof. Senaka Bibile’s essential medicines concept would be presented next month – after a delay of about nine years.
The Minister was responding to a question raised by the United National Party parliamentarian Rosy Senanayake as to whether the new legislation would suffer the same fate as the earlier draft which the Minister alleged had disappeared from the office of the Chief Legal Draftswoman who in turn flatly denied the charge and claimed Health Ministry officials had made it disappear. The Minister said there would be no such mystery this time, the draft was ready and only needed to be translated into all three languages before being presented in Parliament. Health rights groups, while expressing hope that the Minister would at least this time fulfil his promise, also raised questions as to whether the new legislation would have all the provisions of the comprehensive draft approved by the Cabinet as far back as October 2005. That draft called for the appointment of an independent National Medicinal Drugs Regulatory Authority (NMDRA) which would review and re-register all drugs based on five factors – quality, efficacy, safety, the cost of the drug and the need for it. At present more than 13,000 medicinal drugs are known to have been registered and the NMDRA is expected to reduce this to less than 1000, thus enabling Sri Lanka to save hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign exchange by stopping the import of thousands of non-essential drugs which come under highly expensive brand names. More importantly, the people would have access to quality drugs at affordable prices. Health rights groups said they hoped that vested interests like trans-national pharmaceutical corporations would not have been allowed to dilute the legislation and make it like sticking plaster for cancer. The Chamber of Pharmaceutical Industries is known to have opposed two vital factors for registration – the cost of the drug and the need for it. If these factors are removed there will be little if any purpose and the Government will be failing in its responsibility to restore a health service where the well being of the patients is given top priority.
As for the well being of the patients, it seems to be far down in the prescription of priorities in most private hospitals which have today become a multi-million-rupee profit-making business. In one of the latest of thousands of such cases an elderly patient treated at a well-known private hospital said he was ripped off in a disgraceful and shocking manner. When the family asked for a detailed bill, they found that in addition to the room charge of Rs. 7,500 a day, the nursing charge was Rs. 10,000/= a day. Five-star hotels charge less. In addition, the patient had been charged as much as Rs. 80,000/= for a series of injections. Worse still, was a service charge of Rs. 40,000 for the injections, thus making a total of Rs. 120,000/=. Even for the medicinal drugs given in the room, there was a service charge of more than 30% for bringing the drugs from the 3rd floor to the fifth. Packets of vitamins or minerals given to the patient carried a charge of Rs. 7,000/= each, in addition to a service charge of Rs. 3000/= for each packet. Unbelievable, is it? But it is happening daily to thousands of patients in most big private hospitals, while a government-appointed private hospitals monitoring and regulatory body appears to be deaf and blind under a sickbed. Health rights groups are calling on the Government to act fast and effectively to stop this sophisticated pickpocketing of patients while the people – for whom the health service is maintained – should speak out and protest against the robbery and rip-off taking place in institutions which work under the hallowed Hippocratic Oath.