Big reduction in drug prices from October 1
With private pharmaceutical companies agreeing to reduce prices of drugs by about 8% from next month and with a new state owned drug importing company making parallel imports at low costs, substantial relief is on the way for patients.

Consumer Affairs minister Ravi Karunanayake told The Sunday Times the New State Trading (Medical ) Company would ensure that good quality drugs would be made available to the people at affordable prices.

At a meeting with the Action Committee on Justice for Patients Mr. Karunanayake had said he was aware how the 'pharmaceutical Mafia' was defrauding patients and the new state company was part of his plans to bring down drug prices by about 40%. The State Trading (Medical) company chairman Prof. Lal Chandrasena said the new company had already launched into 'parallel imports' and would make available drugs, medical equipment and devices at reasonable prices. Prof. Chandrasena who is also the Medical Director at Navaloka hospital, said they had talks with the Finance Minister to obtain 30 to 40 million rupees for imports and other initial expenses, but most of the facilities would be available from the State Trading company which is already in operation. The board of directors of the new state owned drug importing company comprises six other top medical consultants including the Dean of the Kelaniya medical faculty and the head of its department of pharmacology. Minister Karunanayake told The Sunday Times he had complete faith that the eminent medical personnel running the new company would work fully for the welfare and well-being of the patients.

Responding to concerns expressed by the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA), the minister said he believed such concerns came mainly from some 'vested interests' in the SLMA and thus he was rejecting those. He charged that those 'vested interests' had shown little concern for the well-being of patients and collaborated with drug companies by prescribing expensive brand names for patients. The SLMA in a statement issued last month had asked why parallel imports to bring down essential drugs at lower prices could not be made through the State Pharmaceutical Corporation which already had a good importing and distribution network. Asked about concerns that the new private company might undermine the SPC or be the first step towards its privatization, Mr. Karunanayake said he could not comment as privatization matters were not within his purview. Prof. Chandrasena said he believed the fears about the SPC being undermined were not valid as the new company had no intention of running down the SPC or running it out. He said the new State Trading (Medical ) company would be happy if it could distribute the good quality low cost drugs through the SPC network.

Meanwhile the Health Ministry has reportedly appointed a committee including pharmacology professors to study the scheme of parallel importing to be followed by the new company which comes under the ambit of the Commerce & Consumer Affairs ministry. Expert proposals on parallel importing have also been made to the Health ministry and the Consumer Affairs ministry by Dr. K.Balasubramaniam, Asia Pacific co-ordinator of Health Action International, WHO adviser on world drug prices and former senior lecturer in pharmacology.

Officials of the ministries of Finance, Consumer Affairs & Health met the owners of big pharmaceutical companies on Thursday and an agreement was reached on the reduction of drug prices by about 8% from October 1. The government had withdrawn all taxes on drug imports from August 1 and the SPC had immediately reduced prices. But the private companies had earlier asked for time to dispose of old stocks.

Sri Lanka Chamber of Pharmaceutical Industry's chief Upali Panditharatne said most drug companies have agreed to reduce prices due to the withdrawal of the defence levy. Accordingly private companies intend to reduce prices with the import of new stocks, he said.

Meanwhile arrangements are also being made to mark the 25th death anniversary of Prof. Senaka Bibile who in the 1970s had outlined the hallowed rational drug use principles which several countries in the world are now following. Prof. Bibile pioneered the setting up of the SPC to foster this policy of giving good quality generic drugs to the people at affordable prices. But with fears that the SPC also is on line for privatization the patients rights groups organizing the Senaka Bibile commemoration are to focus it on the theme of saving and strengthening the SPC. a spokesman said.

They can't row closer to shore
By Shelani Perera
The Government has turned down an LTTE request for sea movement closer to the shore, saying that it would be a violation of the cease-fire agreement, a Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission spokesman said.

He said SLMM Chief Trond Furuhovde had conveyed the government's position to the LTTE when he visited the north this week.

Recently, the Sri Lanka Navy lodged a complaint with the SLMM, saying that the LTTE was not keeping to the eight nautical mile distance mentioned in the ceasefire agreement. The SLMM informed the LTTE of the violation after which the LTTE promised to adhere to the agreement. Last week the LTTE requested the Government to allow its boats to sail closer to the shore.

During his visit to Jaffna, Maj. Gen. Furuhovde met senior army officials and LTTE political wing leader S. P. Thamilchelvan and discussed several issues pertaining to the ceasefire agreement, SLMM Deputy Chief Hagrup Hauckland told The Sunday Times.

He said the main topic at the discussion was the zone of separation, apart from that sea movement and communications.

Monks protest against LTTE deban
By Nalaka Nonis
Some 100 monks will go in a motorcade from Kalutara to Kandy to protest against the lifting of the ban on the LTTE. An official of the Jathika Sanga Sammelanaya said the motorcade would start from Kalutara today on the eve of peace talks and would reach Kandy on Thursday after stop-overs at Alutgama, Panadura, Moratuwa, Mount Lavinia, Pettah, Attanagalla and Kegalle.

Ven Ellawala Medananda Thera president of the Sammelanaya said they would rally public support against the de-ban and what they saw as the government's tendency to give into LTTE demands.

He said they would also be closely watching the developments at the peace talks in Thailand and would alert the people if they felt national interests were not being protected. The monk said they had nothing against the Tamil people but they would stand against the designs of the LTTE.

Party town backdrop to sober Lankan talks
By Dominic Whiting
PATTAYA, Thailand, Saturday (Reuters) - Go-go bars, transvestite cabaret shows, massage parlours and drinking dens - and now Sri Lanka's peace talks.

Thailand's hard-partying coastal resort of Pattaya makes a colourful, if boozy, backdrop to sober negotiations aimed at ending one of Asia's longest running wars.

But the town that on Monday will host the opening ceremony of the first in a planned series of three-day talks between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels is no stranger to enemies sitting down to talk peace.

It was in Pattaya that Cambodia's warring factions met in the late 1980s to negotiate a ceasefire between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-backed government, which led to United Nations-sponsored elections.

Sri Lanka is a similar case of a war, now waged for nearly 20 years, that neither side has looked able to win by pure force.

But with a ceasefire holding well for seven months, the Norwegian-brokered talks are now seen as the best chance of achieving a permanent peace.

After opening speeches to the media, a Thai police motorcade will whisk negotiators past Pattaya's palm tree-lined promenades and deck-chair-littered beach to a naval base about 30 minutes drive away, where private talks will begin.

The sprawling Sattahip base serves as headquarters for Thailand's navy, and boasts its own beach, a luxury hotel, holiday houses for high-ranking officers and - according to sailors - some of the best seafood restaurants in the country.

Visiting U.S. warships and Thailand's sole aircraft carrier anchor nearby, providing a steady stream of company for Pattaya's pole dancing prostitutes and notorious transvestite "lady boys".

The Sri Lankan negotiators are scheduled to head back to Pattaya on Wednesday for a news conference, but public information during the talks is expected to be sparse.

Sri Lankan officials say the first round of talks will focus on development issues and set a framework for future talks that will deal with Tamil claims for self-governance.

The talks may be held as often as twice a month.

If things go well, Pattaya will become the negotiators' second home.

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