Mamata on mission to save fair-price medicine shops (West Bengal Newsletter)
By Sirshendu Panth, Kolkata, March 16 : "If you don't cooperate with patients, we won't tolerate that. We will cancel your licence," the stern warning from West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee left the middle-aged chemist trembling on the other side of the sales counter.
Turning up unannounced at a private pharmacy close to the state-run SSKM (Seth Sukhlal Karnani Memorial) Hospital, Banerjee said she had received specific complaints that the shop was turning away patients who had purchased medicines from the fair price outlet in the premises of the hospital.
The Banerjee government has initiated the process of introducing generic medicines in state-run hospitals by opening 32 fair price pharmacies through public-private partnership (PPP). These outlets are selling generic drugs at highly rebated price. However, people have been complaining that several private medicine shops are flatly refusing to sell medicines to those who have bought some of the drugs from the fair price outlets.
Although the fair price pharmacies are supposed to keep stocks of 142 generic medicines, some of the prescribed drugs are seldom found there -- forcing people to buy them from private shops.
"Forget about the fair price shop. Throw away the medicines you have purchased from it. Buy all the items from us. Else we won't sell the item you need," an employee of a shop in the vicinity of SSKM was quoted as saying by a patient who went there to buy a medicine that was not available in the fair price outlet.
There have been reports of patients' relatives having been forced to buy all the items afresh from private shops to save their near ones.
Such complaints also reached Banerjee, who decided to make a surprise visit accompanied by senior officials and city Police Commissioner Surojit Kar Purkayastha.
Her first stop was the fair price outlet at the SSKM Hospital. She spoke to some of the customers, and was told that even after standing in queues for hours, they did not get all the drugs. The chief minister then asked the outlet officials whether all the 142 generic drugs were available.
Another complaint was that some doctors in state-run hospitals were not prescribing generic medicines.
Banerjee took photocopies of such prescriptions from the fair price outlet and asked the health officials to initiate action.
"Despite repeated orders, some of the doctors are not prescribing generic drugs. They have been given a list of drugs available at such outlets. But they are deliberately prescribing other branded medicines.
"We have collected all evidences against such doctors. We will take proper action," said the chief minister before walking down to five private medicine shops close by to warn them not to trouble patients who have purchased drugs from the fair price outlet at the SSKM Hospital.
As Banerjee confronted private shop owners and their employees with queries about their non-cooperation with patients and sought explanation, they turned clearly nervous and promised not to repeat their "mistakes".
Later, she told reporters: "I have told them loud and clear whatever I had to say. I hope this will produce results. Otherwise, we have to take strong action."
Following the state government's push for generic drugs to replace expensive branded medicines and bring down the prices of essential drugs, the Bengal Chemists and Druggist Association - an umbrella body of chemists with 35,000 members - hit the streets in January.
They held a rally by closing their shops and gave a deputation to the chief minister protesting against the opening of fair price shops.
(Sirshendu Panth can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)