On Friday November 21, the day on which Sri Lanka’s political scene took a historic turn, former Health Minister and the common opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena made a shocking disclosure about what was happening in the vital health service.
Mr. Sirisena, who had been the Health Minister since 2010, told a packed news conference a powerful force had prevented him from implementing Prof. Senaka Bibile’s National Medicinal Drugs Policy to make quality drugs available to people at affordable prices. The Bibile policy would also have been a vital step in restoring a health service where the well-being of patients is given top priority.
Since October 2005, when the Cabinet approved a comprehensive draft for the implementation of the Bibile policy, successive Governments have been giving broken promises or excuses for the delay in implementing a National Health Policy which would have given substantial relief to millions of suffering people. The People’s Movement for the Rights of Patients (PMRP) filed a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court saying the delay in implementing the policy was a denial of the people’s fundamental right to good health.
Since 2010, at the annual Senaka Bibile commemoration meetings, Mr. Sirisena had pledged every year that the policy would be implemented next year. Last year, after appointing a new committee to formulate a fresh draft, Mr. Sirisena accused the former Chief Legal Draftswoman of making the earlier draft dissappear. He implied that trans-national pharmaceutical giants were behind it, but the former Legal Draftswoman denied the charges and claimed the Health Ministry was responsible for the disappearance. Last Friday, at the news conference broadcast live to millions of people on television and radio, Mr. Sirisena who has emerged from backstage to become the star of the current political drama, said forces above him had blocked the Bibile policies.
This is an issue of life or death for millions of people. Mr.Sirisena cannot delay anymore. He must tell the nation who blocked the implementation of this life-saving health policy. He must name names and shame them. If he does not, the Rajapaksa Government must tell the truth about what is happening.
According to a PMRP spokesman, transnational pharmaceutical giants are among the top three profit-making industries in the world. They are known to set apart millions of dollars to provide sponsorships and overseas scholarships, so-called study tours, pleasure trips and other incentives to medical consultants, politicians and health officials all over the world, including Sri Lanka. The people have a right to know to what extent this is happening in Sri Lanka, who is getting how much and for what purpose.
Briefly, the Bibile policy is that about 100 varieties of drugs would be sufficient to meet Sri Lanka’s healthcare needs. But the number of drugs registered for import, prescription and sale is a staggering 15,000 including thousands of non-essential drugs that come under highly expensive brand names.
As a result, Sri Lanka wastes millions of dollars annually on the import of thousands of non-essential drugs, while there is little or no quality control and post-marketing surveillance. Hundreds of pharmacies are functioning illegally without qualified pharmacists, with some of the pharmacies known to be buying and selling counterfeit baggage drugs smuggled in from India by racketeers. It is one hell of a deadly mess. The former Health Minister or the Rajapaksa Government must now tell the whole truth to the people and stop this horrible scandal that could turn hospitals into graveyards.