Health minister: crony practices with Pfizer?

Health minister Ivan Uhliarik could find himself at the centre of a scandal overs suspicions of cronyism after he did a U-turn in a tender, giving preference to his former employer, pharmaceutical company Pfizer.

Uhliarik has come under fire from Transparency International Slovensko, among others, because he swiftly issued an exception to the company Pfizer in a tender for the supply of compulsory vaccinations for children. Suspicions have been raised over his integrity because from 1996 to 2003 he in fact worked for Pfizer, and his brother is still employed by the company.

To date Pfizer had an exclusive position on the Slovak market with the pneumococcal vaccine Prevenar, but GlaxoSmithKline entered the market with its cheaper drug Synflorix, meaning Pfizer was about to lose a highly lucrative order.

Synflorix would have been fully reimbursed from public health insurance, whereas Pfizer’s Prevenar would have been subject to a co-payment for patients, had the company not worked together with Uhliarik’s minister to find a way to bend the rules. In December Pfizer took benefit from a loophole that meant its drug would also be free of the co-payment obligation.

SME daily quotes Uhliarik’s former advisor and current advisor to the PM, Martin Filko as saying: “The move was in conflict to the requirements for transparent regulation of the pharmaceutical market and it could raise suspicions of cronyism and corruption”.

The Ministry denies that there is a problem with the procedure, claiming it proceeded in line with the law and in the public interest. Minister Uhliarik rejects that his former employment in Pfizer had any sway in the extremely swift issue of an exception, defending himself by saying that Pfizer’s competitor was only on the market thanks to his decision and that Pfizer had in fact been put to a disadvantage.

The issue is now being investigated by the Attorney General based on a petition from 3 January, reports SME. Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Uhliarik can expect to be put on the firing line, because the opposition will be more than happy about the latest suspicions, and will probably try to haul him off his ministerial seat.

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