By Angelos Anastasiou
TWO former Health ministers, the former director of the Pharmaceutical Services department, and the department official responsible for monitoring drugs prices in base countries, were to blame for the inflated prices Cypriots paid for drugs from 2009 to 2012, according to the findings of a probe concluded last week.
The investigation was initiated by Health minister Philippos Patsalis as a result of the Auditor General’s reports saying millions had been squandered during this period because the drugs-pricing committee had falsely used Greece as the ‘least expensive’ country in its price benchmarking.
Drugs prices are set by the committee on the basis of prices in four ‘base’ countries in the European Union – the most expensive, the least expensive, and two medians. Greece was chosen as the ‘least expensive’ base country in 2009, when deputies charged it was in fact “ranked as third-highest in the EU in terms of drugs prices.”
But even after drugs prices were reduced in Greece, in 2010 the committee failed to revise its own prices, even though it had received four revised price lists from the Greek Health ministry, issued until September 2010.
In order to justify the decision, the committee cited a document issued by the Greek Health ministry in October 2010 that said “only drugs not included in the price list carry temporary prices and should not be considered as base prices for other countries.” But that, the report said, meant exactly the opposite – that drugs included on the list could and should be considered as base prices.
Former Health ministers Stavros Malas and Christos Patsalides, former director of Pharmaceutical Services Pantelitsa Koupepidou – who chaired the drugs-pricing committee at the time – and Pharmaceutical Services official Christiana Kontemeniotou, who was responsible for price monitoring for the committee, were found to be the key people responsible for the excessive prices Cypriot patients were forced to cough up.
The investigation by an independent public official was carried out over five weeks by Dimos Antoniou, a senior engineer at the Water Department, who concluded that the two ministers failed to intervene by ministerial decree, and the two ministry officials failed to carry out their duties as mandated by law.
The final report hit Patsalis’ desk last week. After studying it, he ordered a disciplinary probe into the actions of Kontemeniotou, as the other three have left public service. He then forwarded the report to both the Auditor General and the Attorney General for further action.
As the two ministers are no longer public officials – and Koupepidou took early retirement in 2011 – Patsalis sought advice from the government’s Law Office on possible courses of action.
Malas issued a statement denying the charges against him and arguing that during his time at the ministry’s helm he initiated a procedure to re-examine drugs prices, which resulted in the downward revision of prices in “approximately 45 per cent of drugs.” Malas also made public the letters he sent with regard to drugs pricing overhaul, and accused the government of employing petty politics.
“It is obvious that a politically motivated strategy is being followed, inaugurated by the Pikis commission which released the main culprits of the financial meltdown in our country and attributed only political responsibility,” Malas said. “I will not drag myself into this political race to the bottom that aims to mislead the public and am ready to assist any further investigation of this matter.”
Patsalides also denied any wrongdoing. He told state radio that he was merely following the recommendations of the competent committee.
“Political decisions must be judged based on information available at the time they were made, and specific recommendations brought before the minister by the competent bodies,” he said. “I was presented with the recommendation of the most competent body and no concerns were raised, so I approved it.”
Koupepidou also dismissed the accusations against her, claiming she could not be held responsible for 2012 prices as she retired a year earlier.
“Other than that, all the documents I presented to the committee were official documents of the Greek authorities,” she said, adding that “the investigating officer that found me culpable never asked for my views on this matter.”
Meanwhile, Patsalis has also instructed a high-ranking official from the Health ministry to conduct a disciplinary probe into an old case concerning allegations of doctors clocking unnecessary overtime hours at the Limassol general hospital, which had been shelved by former Health ministers and former Attorney General Petros Clerides.
Additionally, another ostensibly closed case relating to the purchase of an MRI machine for the Nicosia general has been reopened by Patsalis. The Health minister ordered a disciplinary probe against Dr Vaios Partasides, who administered the contract. According to the memo tabled at the Council of Ministers’ meeting, several serious omissions relating to this contract were reported by the Auditor General’s office since 2009, resulting in the squandering of thousands of euros of public money.