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Healthcare in crisis

Son Nguyen
Friday,  Aug 25,2017,20:50 (GMT+7)
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Healthcare in crisis

Son Nguyen

The society is submerged in shockwaves as the ongoing court hearing over fake drugs unfolds. Criminals will be punished when the court wraps up its hearing tomorrow, but the public confidence in the country’s healthcare sector has been extensively sapped, as several serious problems are unveiled.

As covered in local media these days, the hearing exposes numerous problems, from cheats by traders importing substandard cancer drug for distribution in the healthcare system to unethical behaviors among certain doctors and ineffective management of the healthcare sector.

Prosecutors at the court, which opened its hearing this Monday, accuse that two firms, VN Pharma and H&C International Trading Shipping Co., have colluded to import a batch of 9,300 packs of substandard drug called H-Capita 500mg for cancer treatment. The evidence presented at the court shows the zigzagging path of the importation.

It was back in 2013 when Nguyen Minh Hung, board chairman and CEO of VN Pharma, ordered a batch of cancer drug produced by Canada-based Helix Pharmaceuticals. The deal was brokered by Vo Manh Cuong, director of H&C International Trading Shipping Co., Tuoi Tre reports.

As the drug was not purchased directly from the Canadian drug firm, the batch did not have supporting documents to prove its authenticity and quality. Therefore, Hung of VN Pharma instructed his subordinates to forge a set of fake documents for submission to the Vietnam Drug Administration, which is the key condition to apply for an import license and a distribution visa.

The Vietnam Drug Administration upon receipt of the dossier approved the importation, and in April 2014, VN Pharma did customs procedures for importing 9,300 packs of the drug, according to the paper.

When the batch was already imported, the Vietnam Drug Administration suspected irregularities, and therefore referred the case to police in August 2014.

Results of an investigation showed that Hung of VN Pharma ordered the medicine at US$0.8 a pill, and then Cuong of H&C International Trading Shipping Co. purchased the it from a trader named Raymuldo in the Philippines at US$0.6 a pill. The investigation also found the batch was stamped in India, and then shipped to Singapore before being transported to Vietnam. However, bar codes and other indications on the medicine packaging show the drug is not registered in any country, and all certificates including the names of the sellers are fake. The Ministry of Health later ascertained that the medicine did not have clear origin, and its quality is low, not suitable for human consumption, according to Tuoi Tre.

If the ring had not been busted, the damages would have been much more extensive. According to Vietnamnet, right after the batch had been imported, Hung ordered his staff to send a new application to the Vietnam Drug Administration for permission to import another huge batch of 200,000 packs of the cancer drug also produced by Helix but supplied by Hong Kong-based Austin Pharma Specialties.

The saga is not limited to the import of the substandard drug only.

Investigators clarify that VN Pharma has won numerous tenders to supply medicines for hospitals, and the company’s management has ordered employees to pay commissions to doctors who prescribed for patients those medicines imported and distributed by the company. The total amount of commissions paid to doctors amounted to VND7.5 billion, as verified by police.

The case arouses numerous questions.

Pham Khanh Phong Lan, a deputy of the National Assembly, ponders why a little-known trader like VN Pharma with all forged papers could import fake medicines into Vietnam beyond the knowledge of relevant agencies. 

“In my opinion, Mr. Hung alone could not have done all this. The case is very complicated and must be clarified,” she is quoted by Vietnamnet news site as saying. The NA deputy, who formerly served as deputy director of the HCMC Department of Health, stresses that many people should be held accountable. “The licensing procedures are problematic, and the bidding procedures to supply medicines for hospitals are problematic as well,” says Lan.

“We have to look back to see why a young company (like VN Pharma) can win so many drug supply tenders at hospitals. Either there exists conspiracy, or the bidding procedures fail to eliminate problematic companies,” says Lan in Vietnamnet.

Reporting on the court hearing, Phap Luat newspaper says the illicit trade of substandard cancer drugs not only infringes State economic management rules, but also adversely affects the health of many patients. “Importing a fake cancer drug is a crime,” says the paper.

On its website, Voice of Vietnam radio station harshly criticizes the behaviors of unethical doctors who accepted handsome commissions to prescribe certain medicines as dictated by medicine traders.

Many people, especially relatives of cancer patients, have had to sell even their houses for money to save the lives of their loved ones, but at length, such patients are prescribed with fake medicines. “Many doctors have their eyes closed when making prescriptions for a commission though they know that many patients are poor and the remaining days of their lives are numbered,” says the radio station.

Lao Dong, meanwhile, compares the commission as evidenced at the hearing to a knife stabbed into the human conscience. As receipts of commissions being paid have been collected, it is therefore necessary to pinpoint who have taken the dirty money. The paper says that commissions for doctors, even for good medicines, must be wiped off, let alone fake drugs.

This point is also echoed in Vietnamnet. The news site, citing NA Deputy Pham Khanh Phong Lan, says that commission giving and taking is a striking issue in the healthcare system, and if investigators have gained evidence, they should pursue it to the end.

Apparently, the court case has ushered in a grave crisis for the healthcare sector, and drastic curative measures must be taken to restore the public trust. While State management in the sector needs to be strengthened to ward off fake drugs, the Ministry of Health, according to Voice of Vietnam, must take strong actions to ensure that patients are not pick-pocketed by both unethical drug traders and doctors. It is not only meant to safeguard the interests of patients, but also to protect the prestige of the healthcare sector.

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