Features — 13 May 2014 — by Adele Ramos
Impasse between pharmacists and Ministry of Health

The safety of the country’s medicine supply is paramount, PAB maintains

An official of the Pharmacist Association of Belize (PAB) told Amandala today that there is still an impasse between the association, which represents 150 registered pharmacists across the country, and the Ministry of Health, over a gamut of issues that surround the quality of the medicine supply in the country.

At a Ministry of Health press conference on Friday, Samira Gongora, Senior Pharmacist at the Central Medical Stores, one of the persons recently authorized to sign customs entries along with Anderson, revealed that while Quality Assurance Product Cards were last issued in 2013, standardized testing has not occurred since 2012, when the last batch sent overseas for testing got lost in Jamaica.

The Ministry of Health was at the center of controversy in March over PAB’s public objections to the hiring of the daughter of Minister Erwin Contreras, Danini Contreras, a recent university graduate with no experience in the field, as the director of the drug inspectorate. Things came to a head again when Health CEO, Dr. Peter Allen, included Contreras on a list of new persons authorized to sign customs entries for pharmaceuticals.

This happened while Chief Pharmacist Sharon Anderson was on sick leave—albeit while still processing customs entries from her home. Before January 2014, Donna El-Amin, the then drug inspector, was also authorized to sign those entries, but El-Amin retired in January.

When it objected to Contreras’ hiring, the PAB pointed to a problem of a national scale: that Belize is plagued with a myriad of issues related to the quality of pharmaceuticals, and these issues pose numerous direct threats to the health and safety of the people of this country. Those problems include substandard and sometimes expired drugs on the market.

Today, Marisol Melhado, PAB’s vice president, told Amandala that their issues are still unresolved.

Late last month, the Public Service Union (PSU) issued a press release, threatening to sue Allen for statements made about Anderson, who was on authorized sick leave, alleging that she had gone on strike and was holding the system ransom.

On Friday, Arik Lima, procurement manager at the Central Medical Stores, was confronted by Channel 5’s Michael Rudon over an email in which Lima alleged that Anderson had gone on strike, but Lima said, “Nobody said anything.” Lima contended that suppliers had been complaining of delays in the processing of customs entries, and they were not being signed.

CEO Allen—who has come under fire for the hiring of Contreras, and who had evidently been at odds with Anderson even before the recent chain of events—has said that he concurs with the suggestion of another staff member that the system cannot be closed down because one person is away.

In the e-mail in which he made the comment, Allen proposed that in addition to the Chief Pharmacist, Contreras should become an authorized signatory along with Marietta Enriquez (drug inspector) and Samira Gongora (senior pharmacist at the Central Medical School). Allen has told us that additional signatures are required on those entries from officials at the Ministries of Health and Finance.

“There can be no real issue with multiple signatories for the entry of medical supplies certifying that the items being imported are as per contract terms or part of a list for duty exemptions.” Allen commented on Friday. “There is no technical issue here, and of course, any accusation that it supports special favors for anyone can be met with the argument that having only one person with such power is worse,” he went on to say.

Allen argued that adding others to the list of persons authorized to sign entries adds efficiency.

He also said that the allegations that he has a vested interest in procurement are “entirely false.”

Allen has conceded in a prior news release that the quality of pharmaceuticals is an important issue, but went on to suggest that the problem is bigger in the private sector than in the public sector.

“The public sector has a clear and transparent procurement process in place, which optimizes the quality of supplies – but the inspections over pharmaceuticals sold privately have been weak and must be strengthened,” Allen had said.

Health Minister Pablo Marin told the media on Friday that he definitely still maintains full confidence in his CEO. He also said that his ministry is “for the full benefit of [his] people.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, May 7, the media received a press release signed by several suppliers, including Procare Radiology Supplies, Allied Health Scientific of Belmopan, the Belmopan Medical Lab, Gene Rx Medical Supplies, Commerce Limited and Union Distribution, which said that they “fully support the strict standards maintained by the ministry and in adhering to these standards, the suppliers individually stand behind their products.”

They said that as suppliers, they are prepared to provide copies of all their certificates of Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) for each pharmaceutical product they provide to the public health system.

The Pharmacists Association of Belize said Friday that it is pleased to hear that the medical suppliers to the Ministry of Health are supportive of a tendering process that would provide safe and effective pharmaceutical products to the people of Belize.

Marisol Melhado, PAB’s vice president, told Amandala that the fact that the suppliers will be providing substantial evidence of their manufacturers via the GMP and so forth, is good, but the endorsement should come from the appropriate, reputable entity.

“We welcome that and we want to know that that is a bona fide,” she said.

Melhado told us that they are still not being included as key stakeholders in the process, and there is still an impasse over the overarching issues affecting the sector.

She said that their first and only meeting with the Ministry of Health to try and resolve the issues was held on March 26, and no date was set for a follow-up meeting.

“We responded to their proposals that they had. We responded in a letter and they have not officially responded, except when they went on record to the media saying how dare we question them…” Melhado said.

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