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Several scandals surface as turf war heats up between top health ministry officials


A woman buys medicine at a pharmacy in Hanoi. A senior pharmaceutical official has been accused of giving favor to several firms for his own benefit.

Vietnam's health sector has been shaken by developments over the last several weeks that have two of its top officials mired in accusations of major wrongdoings including academic fraud and shady approvals of drug imports.

Amidst rumors of a burgeoning turf war between the two, allegations have flown thick and fast about each other and an anti-corruption agency has entered the fray via public "denouncements" that have called for the removal of one official.

The two officials in question are Deputy Health Minister Cao Minh Quang and Drug Administration of Vietnam director Truong Quoc Cuong.

Local media have reported allegations that Quang had made a false statement in his CV in declaring that he has a doctor's degree, and that he borrowed large sums of money from a local pharmaceutical firm in a shady deal.

Meanwhile, Cuong is accused of favoring a local firm in importing pseudoephedrine - a medical substance that can be used to make methamphetamine. In fact, he is reported to have favored several firms in their operations for his own benefit.

Denouncements

Last week, eight pharmaceutical firms have called for the removal of Cuong, accusing him of abusing his power to favor import applications made by some firms while rejecting others.

Senior officials directors or deputy directors of Imexpharm, Agimexpharm, S.Pharm, Minh Hai, Tipharco, Stada-Vietnam, Pymepharco and the Khanh Hoa Pharmaceutical Company have made the denouncements, Tuoi Tre newspaper reported on Monday.

They said Cuong had favored the BV Pharma Company in allowing it to import pseudoephedrine to make flu medicine. Cuong had approved the firm's application to import the medical substance in just one or two days, while approvals for such substances usually take at least six months, they said.

In their denouncements, the eight firms said Cuong had also ignored a decision by the Health Ministry to halt the import of sabutramine following a warning from the World Health Organization that the substance could lead to harmful side effects on humans.

Tran Thi Dao, general director of Imexpharm, said they were denouncing Cuong because of "excessive sluggishness" that the medicine agency has displayed recently and were not making personal attacks.

"There has been no firm in Vietnam that has denounced the Drug Administration of Vietnam so far. We accept that we may have to"¦ face any risks involved in when submitting the letters," she said.

Cuong was also accused of approving the import of many medicines into Vietnam that local companies could produce in the country.

The eight firms proposed to the Central Anti-Corruption Committee that Cuong be dismissed from his post.

The Central Anti-Corruption Committee has confirmed that they would meet with the Drug Administration of Vietnam, Health Ministry inspectors and the petitioning firms to verify accusations about the import of pseudoephedrine.

In another action, the Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on September 21 signed a decision on coordination between agencies in managing legal activities involving additives.

Deputy Minister targeted

Meanwhile, the accusations against Deputy Health Minister Cao Minh Quang have focused on a purportedly false CV and a loan of VND2 billion (US$96,000) he took from a former general director of a local pharmaceutical company.

On Monday (September 26), the Ministry of Education and Training announced results of their verification of Quang's degree following several media reports in the local media, citing unknown sources, alleging Quang had made false declarations about his degree.

According to the ministry, Quang had obtained a "licentiatexemen" at the Uppsala University in Sweden. The license is an "Intermediate Degree" which is at a lower level than a doctoral degree, it said.

This contradicts a statement by the education ministry itself in 2000 when it said Quang's degree from Uppsala University was equal to a doctoral degree in Vietnam.

Following rumors about loans that he took from BV Pharma's former general director Ngo Chi Dung in 2007, Quang confirmed the information, saying he had repaid them with interest by the due date on June 2008.

"I also borrowed money from a colleague at that time and my wife repaid it later," he said, rejecting accusations he had forced Dung to lend him money.

However, in a petition denouncing Quang, Dung said he was forced to lend Quang the amount, VTC News reported.

"It was when my company was suffering losses of dozens of billions of dong a year. When Quang asked to borrow VND1 billion, the general director [Dung] had to discuss it with the board because of fears he could take action that could affect the company's activities," the news website cited Dung's petition as saying.

Quang borrowed money from Dung at an interest rate of 7.44 percent a year when banks' average interest rates were between 12 and 13 percent, Tuoi Tre reported.

Who benefits?

A recent editorial in Thanh Nien argued that accusations against two senior health officials could actually lead to more transparent health agencies that could better manage medicine prices that have been a heavy burden for poor patients in Vietnam.

"Are they positive denouncements to improve drug administration or some ploy for personal benefit," it wondered, also remarking that the denouncing game between "two groups" is not likely to stop soon.

But any expectations that the scandal would lead to positive developments in the local medicine market in terms of lower prices have been belied. The market has actually acted in a contrary manner.

Following the pseudoephedrine scandal, the prices of many medicines with the substance have actually increased. Pseudoephedrine is commonly used as a nasal/sinus decongestant and stimulant or as a wakefulness-promoting agent.

A recent investigation by Tien Phong found a price increase among medicines for flu, rhinitis and sinusitis that contain pseudoephedrine.

The price of Actifed, for instance, increased from VND600 to VND4,400 per tablet and Woaheder from VND300 to VND4,500 per tablet.

The price of local medicines have increased to up to eight times their earlier prices, including Eruvipharm and Savipharmed of the Savipharm Company, Glomed's Glotifed and Tien Giang Pharma Company's Acdiral. Pharmacies will also have to order the drugs in advance to have medicines delivered, instead of buying them at any time from wholesalers, the paper reported.

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