OWNERS of many Slovak pharmacies closed their doors for four hours on August 1 to protest what they say is the Health Ministry's failure to settle massive unpaid debts in the sector. It was the fourth strike action by pharmacies this summer.
According to the Slovak Chamber of Pharmacies (SLeK), the group is calling attention to the critical financial situation in the drugs distribution sector, where they claim the aggregate debt of state insurers to pharmacies has reached Sk6 billion.
"In the pharmacies sector, it [growing debt] might result in a complete halt in the supplying of pharmacies with drugs," said SLeK president Peter Mihálik, who said that without the state money the firms would soon not have enough to pay their own suppliers.
The government has promised to allocate Sk3.7 billion ($82 million) from privatisation proceeds this year to patch debt holes in the health sector. However, Sk2.8 billion of this has been earmarked to settle debts of health facilities currently being transferred to village, town or regional administrations, leaving only Sk900 million to pay down debts in other health sectors, including pharmacies.
According to the SLeK, Slovak law obliges drugs distributors to deliver 'vital' medications, which are fully covered by insurance, to pharmacies, which are obliged to pay distributors for the shipments within 30 days.
However, pharmacists say insurance providers have been unwilling to render prompt payment for drugs, complaining that particularly state companies and organisations owe huge sums in overdue premiums to insurers.
The SLeK claims that insurance providers routinely delay payments to pharmacies for three to six months, and some hospitals wait as long as two years to pay bills.
The Association of Drug Suppliers (ADL) voiced strong support for the pharmacy strike, saying that despite government promises to settle debts in the drugs supply chain, shortfalls have deepened over 2002.
The current round of closures began with a one-hour strike on June 19, followed by strikes on July 4 and July 18, each growing by an hour. SLeK has promised to continue the campaign through the September elections if the problem is not resolved.
While the number of pharmacies participating in the strike was unclear at the time of publication, more than half the public pharmacies in Slovakia joined the July 18 action.
The SLeK said that emergency pharmacy services had been made available in every town during the strikes.