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VENEZUELA
Poor sectors are the most affected by medicines shortage
Valentina Oropeza
6/14/2016
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The government attributes the shortage to an economic war which, it points out, affects the import and distribution of medicines and hospital supplies.

The death of Oliver Sánchez, an eight-year-old cancer patient in late May, outraged the public that had seen him months earlier participating in a protest, wearing a medical face mask and holding up a sign that reads: “I want to heal, peace and health,” highlighting the health crisis in Venezuela brought on by shortages of medicines and hospital supplies.

Freddy Ceballos, president of the Pharmaceutical Federation of Venezuela, claims that the extreme shortage of medicines stands at 85 percent of the national inventory. Meanwhile, Douglas León Natera, head of the Medical Federation of Venezuela, said that the shortage of hospital supplies now reaches 95 percent.

Highly dependent on imports, Venezuela is experiencing a severe shortage of not only medicines but also of food and other consumer staples, a situation that is compounded by the fall in oil prices which provides 96 percent of foreign currency with which the state buys goods abroad or is assigned to the private sector through strict exchange controls in force since 2003.

“There is clearly a shortage of medications; but it is not that that we are down to absolutely nothing. This is most noticeable and felt when a patient goes to the pharmacy and does not get the treatment prescribed; we cannot deny this situation,” said the Minister of Health Luisana Melo earlier this year, who also indicated that at the national level, medicine production is prioritized on the basis of higher turnover and only those medicines not manufactured in the country will be imported.

The drop in the import of medicines and medical supplies not only affects the day to day operation of public hospitals, but also private health institutions that have to process the allocation of foreign currencies through the state in order to replenish their inventories.

“They do not even give clinics the dollars to replace equipment,” said León Natera in an interview with a local television station in early May.

While the government of President Nicolás Maduro maintains that this dire situation is caused by an economic war being waged by elements of the private sector linked to the opposition, the Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry claims that they have failed to pay on a debt of US$632 million owed to international suppliers for the manufacture of medicines in Venezuela because the government has not given them the required currency.

Once credit lines with foreign distributors are exhausted, manufacturers will not be able to import raw material or finished goods unless the Executive branch gives them foreign currency to fulfill their debt commitments. Although the government is in talks with the private sector to negotiate foreign exchange allocation schedules, those in the industry insist that the schedules are not met.

With fewer dollars coming from oil, Maduro has been forced to cut down on imports. Miguel Pérez Abad, Minister of Industry and Commerce, told reporters in April that after developing a “pharmaceutical map,” the government concluded that the sector can operate with $1.2 billion a year instead of the $3.6 billion it received previously.

Emergency situation
Jorge Giordani, former Planning Minister with great influence in monetary policy for over a decade during the administration of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), said that only in 2012 there were $25 billion diverted through “briefcase companies”: companies that received currency from the state but did not import products.

The Marea Socialista (Socialist Tide) movement, which split from Chavismo and is led by Giordani, reported that in 12 years of exchange control, “briefcase companies” have embezzled about $259 billion.

In this context, the physician and opposition deputy José Manuel Olivares questions the refusal of the Executive branch to disclose the list of companies that have received foreign currency, an action that prevents other public authorities from monitoring whether medicines and hospital supplies have indeed arrived or not in the country.

The opposition in the Legislature passed the “Special Law Attending to the National Health Crisis” on May 3 and has demanded that the government accept subsidized medicines and assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO). The legislative opposition has taken the necessary steps, but the official application corresponds to the Executive branch, which has not done so.

The government signed an agreement with 52 companies in the pharmaceutical industry in February for the manufacture of medicines in Venezuelan soil. President Maduro said at that time that domestic production “is the path to liberation for the country from a rentier oil state.” To stimulate the pharmaceutical industry, the government is also signing cooperation agreements in this field with countries like China, Cuba, India and Iran.

In April the government signed an agreement with Cuba for $1.4 million for the importation of medications and in late May Venezuela received 96 tons of medicines from China. Caracas signed an agreement with Iran in 2015 to produce medicines; meanwhile, the government of India reported that its Venezuelan counterpart acquired $125.5 million in medicines, and that it proposed to Caracas an oil-for-drugs barter with India’s pharmaceutical sector.

To alleviate the shortage, this year Maduro created two new medicine distribution mechanisms, including the “0800-SaludYa” a health helpline to help patients locate medicines in the public pharmacies system. However, he acknowledged that less than two months from its creation, it was infiltrated by a mafia that would be diverting drugs.

Maduro insists that it is essential to reconstruct the distribution system for medicines produced in the country to prevent such production from being diverted for smuggling. “We must regulate new distribution systems and marketing and price regularization systems, to strengthen our real economy,” said the President.

Public hospitals in crisis
While the government and the opposition have opposing arguments regarding the shortage of medicines and hospital supplies, the fact is that this situation affects the majority of the Venezuelan population who are treated in public hospitals.

Vanessa Furtado, a 45-year-old swimming coach, has a tumor in the pituitary gland that led to glaucoma. Her doctors predicted four weeks ago now that if she does not undergo brain surgery, she runs the risk of dying in four months.

“When the eyestrain increases it causes my vision to fade to the point where I cannot see anything,” she tells Latinamerica Press. She has for months not been able to get the drops needed to relieve her symptoms.

“Only surgery would help me to live but there are no medicines to treat me in Venezuela. I have the option of palliative radiotherapy but the necessary equipment does not work in public hospitals that I have been to,” Furtado states, adding that in one day she can visit up to five pharmacies in search of medicines, often not finding any.

In the absence of alternatives, patients publish by social networks the medicines they need, hoping to find someone to sell, donate or exchange the medicines for others, or even food. Like many other Venezuelans, Furtado posts her prescriptions in social networks and tries her luck every day by touring pharmacies. —Latinamerica Press.


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The Government of Venezuela has signed agreements with the pharmaceutical industry for the manufacture of medicines. / Prensa Presidencial
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