Retailers accuse government of breaking medicine laws - 6/1/2006

Flu jab sales
Retailers accuse government of breaking medicine laws
Rosanne Zammit

The Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprises, GRTU, yesterday accused the government of breaching the Medicines Act 2003 when it directly competed with private pharmacies to sell surplus influenza vaccines.

But Health Minister Louis Deguara said he did not believe the government was in breach of the law because it only sold vaccines of which it had a surplus and which were in demand at a time when these were not available on the local market.

The GRTU referred to comments by the chairman of the National Influenza Pandemic Standing Committee in an item that appeared on The Times yesterday, saying that the uptake of the influenza vaccine was lower than expected.

"The GRTU wishes to point out that, this year, pharmacy owners reported a larger than usual uptake of vaccines from the general public, including those who are over 55 years of age and who are deemed most at risk.

"The GRTU is surprised by the statement made by Dr (Tanya) Melillo in this respect."

It said that although the government ordered a large number of vaccines, their take up was not as heavy as expected.

Instead of consulting with pharmacy owners, who were the stakeholders in this case, on how best to work together to increase take up, a decision was taken to offer these vaccines for sale from government health centres in direct competition with pharmacists, who were already heavily stocked with vaccines, the GRTU said.

It added that through its direct intervention, one of its members took the initiative to sell the surplus vaccines abroad, ensuring that the uncalled for government intervention in the free market would not damage to all pharmacy owners who had stocks of vaccine for sale.

However, the actions of the National Influenza Pandemic Standing Committee still caused big difficulties to private pharmacy owners as people preferred to buy their vaccine from health centres where no doctor's fees were charged for vaccination.

As a result, some pharmacies were left facing losses because they still hold a stock of vaccines, which have a very short expiry date. The stock in Malta expires in April.

The ministry's action, the GRTU said, will mean unnecessary financial losses to private owners of pharmacies who cooperated fully with the national campaign.

"The GRTU contends that the sale of any pharmaceuticals, of which vaccines are a part, by the government health centres is in direct breach of the Medicines Act 2003.

"That a government department sees fit to enter in direct competition with the private pharmacies to sell surplus vaccines is simply not acceptable." acceptable.

"The GRTU warned it will report the Maltese authorities to the European Commission with the help of EuroCommerce in Brussels, should this direct market intervention by government continue to happen.

It said that any further breach, for whatever reason, by the Health Department of the Medicines Act 2003, except where necessary in the case of a national emergency, will be met by industrial action by pharmacy owners, their employees and other stakeholders.

Dr Deguara said the ministry bought 150,000 vaccines and about 30,000 were extra. It had requests from the UK to buy the jabs but he felt he could not give these to a foreign country when there were none in the Maltese market at the time and there was a demand for them. So they started to be sold at cost price from the Floriana Health Centre, he said.

The minister said he did not think this was in breach of the law as the government only sold surplus medicine it had and which at the time was not yet available on the local market.

The GRTU also referred to Dr Melillo's statement that doctors were left with stocks of vaccines booked by their patients and not taken up.

"While sympathising with these individuals, the GRTU stated from the outset that no one except pharmacies are allowed by law to stock and dispense medicines, and that the sale of pharmaceuticals by doctors is in breach of the Medicines Act 2003," it said.

It strongly objected to the "confrontational attitude" being taken by the Health Department on every issue that directly affects the other important stakeholders in health services to the community.

"The GRTU strongly urges the Ministry of Health to work hand in hand with the stakeholders, especially with the owners of private pharmacies in the community.

"The Ministry of Health should steer away from creating unnecessary strife in areas where the public expect harmony.

"The public is better served by agreed joint actions rather than by authoritarian impositions," the GRTU said.

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