The majority of pharmacies around Slovakia remained closed Tuesday, July 6 to draw attention to their increasingly difficult financial situation.
The co-ordinated effort shut down all but six pharmacies in Bratislava and all in Trenčín and Nové Zamky. It followed a similar effort one year ago in which pharmacies closed for an hour to protest habitual non-payment by both state and private medical insurance companies.
"Pharmacies are facing huge arrears from health insurance companies and the state," read an official declaration issued by the Slovak Pharmacists Chamber (SLeK). "The closure of drugstores is not directed against patients, and in fact, it is no longer even a protest. It is a message to the people in responsible positions who are able to grasp the fact that Slovak pharmacies have reached the end of their ropes," it said.
Representatives of SLeK said that they are no longer able to extend credit to insurance companies and the state after five years of late or inadequate payment of drug bills. After five months of negotiations on repayment of the direct debt owed to the pharmacies, the state recently granted drug providers only 200 million crowns, far below the projected real debt figure of two to three billion crowns.
Pharmacists responded angrily to the modest state payment. Anton Bartonek, head of the Media Committee of the SLeK, told The Slovak Spectator on Wednesday, July 7 that "pharmacists are exhausted by permanent stress and are no longer able either to carry the burden of debts towards our medical suppliers, or to cover up for the debts of insurance companies."
They are increasingly unable to comply with a 1998 law which requires them to ensure drugs for patients within 24 hours, representatives of the Chamber said.
Responding to the situation, Ján Šipeky, the general director of the Pharmacy Section at the Ministry of Health Care, denied that the government was the main offender in the failure to pay for drugs. Instead, he said, the core of the problem were insurance 'non-payers' -Slovak employers who habitually failed to pay health care premiums to insurance companies, and who thus touched off a debt cycle in which insurance companies then failed to pay health providers like pharmacies and hospitals.
Šipeky said that the situation would be improved by a government grant of 300 million crowns to general and joint health insurance companies, earmarked for drug debts, and 200 million crowns in direct state payments to pharmacies. The money was due to begin arriving in July.
Šipeky added that he felt the pharmacists' strike was an improper way to deal with the deepening crisis in the sector, as it could easily have compromised patient health. "This is just another wrong step in the complicated situation in health care," he told the news agency SITA.
On the local level, the Chamber's representatives appealed to the public for understanding and support.
Mária Smužová, owner of the Farmácia pharmacy in Kremnica, a town in the Banská Bystrica district, said that "pharmacists have to continue these protests until they [the government] open their eyes and start considering a real solution. You cannot play with people's health."
One of the six pharmacies which were open in Bratislava on Tuesday for emergency cases was Pod Manderlom, owned by Iveta Cmarová. "The majority of patients supported the action and showed understanding for the difficult situation of Slovak pharmacies. We strive to survive every single day," Cmarová said.
26. Jul 1999 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová