By Stefanos Evripidou
THE public was served a heavy dose of mixed messages yesterday as the debate continued to rage on allegations of cover-ups at the health ministry regarding numerous ‘scandals’ that have been left to linger without any conclusive investigations to clarify the various claims.
The three main issues brought back into the spotlight after first coming up in 2012 are charges by the auditor-general that millions have been squandered on drug purchases; an allegation that state doctors abused overtime pay, and alleged misconduct over the purchase of a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine at the Nicosia general hospital.
Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides recently raised the issue of irregularities in drug pricing, which has frequently resurfaced over the years.
He argued that the drug pricing committee, which sets prices of pharmaceuticals using a formula involving four sample countries, had failed to take corrective action when drug prices in Greece rose in 2009.
Greece was meant to be used as a market sample of cheap drugs, thereby offsetting the more expensive drugs sold in Switzerland. Austria and France are also used in the sample.
When drug prices in Greece increased between 2009 and 2012, no measures were taken to adjust the formula, leading to allegations that millions of euros were spent on drugs unnecessarily because the committee continued to use Greece as a ‘cheap’ benchmark of drugs prices.
EDEK’s deputy leader Marinos Sizopoulos had made similar allegations back in April 2005 that drugs were purchased at higher prices while better offers were available.
Health minister Philippos Patsalis yesterday insisted that he would not tolerate any illegality or attempt at profiteering, confirming he has ordered a disciplinary and criminal investigation into the actions of a senior official relating to the drug pricing allegations.
Asked by public broadcaster CyBC yesterday how much the drugs may have been overpriced, the minister said possibly between 20 and 30m euros.
The Cyprus Pharmaceutical Companies Association (SFEK) yesterday argued that Greece’s drug prices in 2009 were never the third most expensive in Europe, as has been reported, adding that it has evidence to back its claims.
“Unfortunately, some within the Auditor-general’s office and the pharmaceutical services continue to mislead the auditor-general and respective health ministers,” said SFEK.
The association said attention should be redirected to the 2004-2005 period instead, when drugs were purchased at nearly five times the prices offered by legal representatives through tenders awarded to two companies that were “established out of nowhere and disappeared in a night”.
Sizopoulos yesterday accused politicians of maintaining a “guilty silence” over the issue when it first came up, in order to cover for others.
He called for the creation of an independent committee of accountants to check the finances of senior state officials in the last 15 years.
The EDEK official also raised another potential scandal, adding to the plethora of allegations floating about. He called on the health ministry to provide information on who are the owners of buildings rented by the ministry in the last 15 years.
“It appears this is an issue of entanglements,” he said.
Internal audit Commissioner Andreas Lambrianou added to the picture of misery, confirming that most letters of complaints he receives involve health ministry cases.
Despite repeated letters to the ministry, he has yet to receive a reply on the allegations raised by members of the public, nor has the ministry launched investigations into them.
Patsalis, meanwhile, called on anyone with information on any irregularities to contact him so that he may proceed with a new investigation in addition to others launched in the last two months.
“We will not remain with our hands crossed over any incident that comes before us in the future or from the past.”
Regarding the abuse of overtime pay and discrepancies in the handling of the MRI purchase, Patsalis said he was consulting with the Attorney-general on how to approach those cases.
The MRI case was closed by former health minister Petros Petrides, while the investigation into overtime abuse was stopped by former health minister Stavros Malas and the cabinet at the time.
Patsalis said he spoke extensively about both issues with the auditor-general and attorney-general to see how the cases can be reopened, if at all.
He also pledged to look at all old investigations to see whether there is anything not quite right about them.
“If there are probes pending or investigations that were vague or not done properly, we will look at these,” he said.
Attorney-general Costas Clerides yesterday waded into the allegation of a cover-up regarding investigations into abuse of overtime pay by doctors at one of the state hospitals.
In a statement, Clerides said the cabinet had decided to appoint an officer to carry out a disciplinary investigation into the allegation.
From the initial stages of the investigation, it became apparent that a criminal investigation was warranted, with criminal investigators needing to work alongside officials from the offices of the accountant-general and auditor-general.
The investigating officer made this proposal to then attorney-general Petros Clerides who sent a letter to then health minister Malas, proposing a criminal investigation.
However, the cabinet under the previous government of Demetris Christofias “did not decide to appoint criminal investigators to conduct a criminal investigation, but decided to suspend the disciplinary investigation and carry out an administrative investigation, appointing a senior health officer to carry out this investigation”, said Clerides.
At the same time, the health ministry sent a letter to the legal service’s investigating officer terminating the latter’s disciplinary investigation.
Malas responded last night with his own statement, arguing that all actions taken were based on the recommendations of the former attorney-general Petros Clerides.
He rejected accusations of a cover-up and called for full transparency on the issue. Malas further questioned why nobody ever focuses on the “very positive findings” of the auditor-general’s 2012 report such as the review of procedures to send patients abroad, and the millions of euros saved in costs.
“Evidently, because everything positive about the work of the previous government must be swept under the rug while issues are raised to distract the public from the major issues plaguing the health sector,” he said.
The former minister went so far as to suggest ulterior motives to undermine the public health sector to make way for services to fall in the hands of the private sector.
Regarding the handling of the overtime charges, Malas said it was the attorney-general who recommended suspending the disciplinary investigation in December 2011, so that a criminal investigation could be launched.
On January 2, 2012, the ministry’s permanent secretary instructed the relevant official to coordinate with the legal service, auditor-general and accountant-general to appoint a criminal investigation team. Nobody ever mentions this fact, argued Malas.
In another letter on February 24, 2012, the then attorney-general adopts the position that a wider administrative investigation on the whole system of overtime pay should be conducted.
The cabinet suspended the disciplinary investigation as recommended but it was up to the attorney-general to proceed with the criminal investigation, said Malas.