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Sunday 27th May 2018

Russians denied free medicines

29th May 2007

Russian MPs are calling for the resignation of the health minister after a funding shortfall led to catastrophic shortages of prescription drugs in pharmacies around the country.


MPs have called for Mikhail Zurabov to step down in the face of the scandal, which has left thousands of ordinary Russians on a low income without much-needed medication.

One 26-year-old myeloleukaemia patient, Yury Bodorez, died after experiencing dramatic withdrawal symptoms from his medication at a hospital in Voronezh, 300 miles from Moscow, in February. His death drew attention to the funding crisis which has led many pharmacists to run out of prescription drugs which would normally be provided free of charge.

Supplies of the drug he needed exist in warehouses, but a lack of funding meant his drug, imatinib, was not available at the local pharmacy free of charge, because the government had failed to pay the necessary subsidies.

According to The Lancet, this a scenario that has been played out thousands of times across the country. Patients with serious illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, haemophilia, and multiple sclerosis are being denied life-saving treatment because of the shortages.

Problems with free prescription drugs were caused by an unrealistically low budget of just 34.1 roubles (US$1.3 billion) being allocated to the programme in 2005.

The programme had run up debts of US$1.5 billion by the middle of last year with pharmaceutical companies and distributors, who filled in the shortfall out of their own budgets for a while, before refusing to supply drugs until current debts are cleared.

Pensioners' and veterans' groups have burned effigies of the health minister at protest meetings across the country, calling on Zurabov to take personal responsiblity for the mess.

Calls for his resignation have been echoed in parliament and by a Kremlin-backed body set up to promote civil society.

And in the Bashkiriya region one pensioner has launched legal action against the health ministry, demanding compensation.

Sergei Popov, an MP in the lower house of parliament who is campaigning for health minister Zurabov to be removed from his post, says the DLO system collapsed because of a deadly mix of incompetence and corruption. Zurabov has argued that it was impossible to predict the quantity of subsidised drugs that would be needed in the midst of opt-out reforms taking place in the state welfare system.

Zurabov was at the centre of a corruption scandal in November, 2006, when seven officials of the compulsory health insurance fund subordinate to his ministry were arrested on suspicion of receiving bribes from pharmaceutical and other companies.


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