During the past few decades, after Prof. Senaka Bibile’s essential medicines policy was scrapped under pressure from the United States Government and transnational pharmaceutical corporations, the health sector has become one of the biggest profit-making businesses.
In October 2005, the then Government approved comprehensive proposals to revive the Senaka Bibile principles through a national medicinal drugs policy. This comprehensive plan was worked out by Prof. Krishantha Weerasuriya who was then the World Health Organisation’s South Asian advisor for medicinal drugs policy. Prof. Weerasuriya held a series of consultations with various stakeholders before submitting the proposals.
Since 2005, committees have been appointed to draft legislations but it they were delayed for as many as 10 years. The People’s Movement for the Rights of Patients (PMRP) even went to the Supreme Court to file a fundamental rights petition on the basis that by delaying the Bill, the then government was denying the people’s fundamental right to have access to quality drugs at affordable prices.
President Maithripala Sirisena who was earlier the Health Minister disclosed after his election last year, that in 2014, representatives of transnational drugs giants here had offered and given as much as Rs. 1,000 million to the then ruling party to delay, dilute or derail the national medicinal drug policy Bill.
Last year the government presented legislation for the setting up of a National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) and it was unanimously approved by Parliament. After the general elections in August last year, the high-powered 13-member NMRA was appointed in October. It was headed by the highly respected Prof. Laal Jayakody, Head of the Department of Pharmacology in the Colombo University, while Prof. Weerasuriya was appointed as the Deputy Chairman and the Chief Executive Officer. Funds for the NMRA to start work were approved only about three months ago and it was able to recruit a staff of about 250 including qualified pharmacists to check the thousands of varieties of drugs that had been registered for import. Specialists say as many as 15,000 varieties of drugs had been registered for import and sale, while there were hundreds of files containing applications for the registrations of new drugs. Essential drugs, being a matter of life or death, NMRA officials say the authority needed time to carefully check the drugs on the basis of their efficacy, safety, quality, the need and the cost.
While the NMRA was slowly but surely carrying out its mission, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne in a shocking move last Friday told Prof. Jayakody and Prof. Weerasuriya to resign and they did. According to Ministry sources, the Minister was of the view that there were shortcomings in the NMRA and as a result there were shortages of drugs. During the past 10 years the main argument of the Big pharma Mafia was that if the number of drugs being imported was restricted in line with Prof. Bibile’s principles, there would be a shortage of drugs. Now the Minister is saying the same thing and health action groups are raising questions as to whether Big pharma or other vested interests have used big money to sabotage the work of the NMRA.
The PMRP in a statement issued yesterday expressed grave concern over the sudden removal of the NMRA chairman and the CEO. Health Services Director General Dr. Palitha Mahipala, an ex-officio NMRA member when contacted by the PMRP on Monday said he was unaware of the removal of the two respected officials. The medicines mystery deepens.
The PMRP said the NMRA was an independent authority in terms of the law and there could be no political interference in its work. It said the Health Ministry had often been influenced by vested interest and this appeared to be another such case with millions of innocent patients being the victims of such callous and heartless actions.
Adding to the latest blow or attack on the patients, is a report that Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanaage and Dr. Kamal Jayasinghe are to be appointed to Head the NMRA. Dr. Kahandaliyanaage, a former Ministry Secretary has been a top Director of the powdered milk giant Fonterra and valid questions are being raised about a major conflict of interest.
At stakes is the credibility of the National Government’s Yahapalanaya and the well-being of millions of innocent patients. We urge President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to intervene and save the NMRA for the sake of the people and the country.