Cholesterol Controversy in Parliament
Medicine entitlement for over-75s
Opposition says WHO advice wrongly interpreted
Certain medicines were no longer being given for free to patients aged over 75 following recommendations by the World Health Organisation which Malta had adopted under the Labour government, the Health Minister said yesterday.
The issue has been the subject of much criticism by the opposition over recent weeks.
Health Minister Louis Deguara said the protocol for the entitlement of lipid-lowering agents (which lower cholesterol levels) was being implemented following a WHO recommendation.
He said the protocol had been presented to Parliament by then Health Minister Michael Farrugia. The Nationalist opposition at the time had seconded the proposal because it was a WHO recommendation.
Dr Farrugia, while admitting that the protocol had been approved during his party's last term in office, pointed out that its implementation had only started after the change of government in 1998. And he insisted that the protocol was being interpreted wrongly.
He said the protocol laid down that a person who was 75 years or older should not start taking lipid-lowering agents. However, Dr Farrugia added, what was happening was that such medicines were also being denied to patients as soon as they turned 75, even when they would already have been taking them.
He explained that consultants had proposed such a measure because it had been found that the effectiveness of lipid-lowering agents was questionable when a person was over the age of 75. However, he added, the same consultants had stressed the importance that a person who was on such agents should not stop taking them.
Dr Farrugia said the MLP was criticising the fact that people were no longer entitled to the medicines for free once they turned 75 even if they used to get them before. This, he insisted, was not what the protocol established.
But when contacted again, Dr Deguara said the protocol was "strictly being adhered to". He said such measures were not exceptional, pointing out that, for example, diabetics did not get free glucose sticks once they turned 35.
Asked whether there was a chance of the protocol being revised, Dr Deguara said this could happen but added that one had to take the financial aspect into consideration. He said that if the government were to implement a recent recommendation by the WHO to use lipid-lowering agents as a preventive measure it would cost the country an extra Lm1.5 million annually.
Health director general Ray Busuttil explained that although lipid-lowering drugs were effective, one needed to consider the economic implications.