The people of Venezuela enjoy health care as a constitutional right. Yet given the political economy of the pharmaceutical industry, the distribution of medication necessary to secure that right has been inconsistent.
This last week the Vice Minister of Resources, Technology and Regulation in the Ministry of Health, Aurelio Tosta, and the National Coordinator of the Oncology Program, Claudia Morón each announced the arrival of large shipments of medications. Tosta also publicized new policy measures to ensure the nation’s continuing supply of essential medicines.
Almost 264 million units of medications arrived at the main warehouse of Venezuela’s Pharmaceutical Preparation Service (SEFAR)—including some 640,000 units of chemotherapy for cancer patients. Tosta explained that these medications will supply Venezuela’s network of free public hospitals. PetroCaribe helped to purchase the antibiotics from Colombia and the cancer drugs from El Salvador and Uruguay.
Under a new program administered by the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security (IVSS) access to all oncology medications is guaranteed free to all cancer patients. Likewise, the Health Ministry distributes free of charge antiretroviral drugs to all 40,000 Venezuelans with HIV/AIDS.
Tosta also announced new measures –including the creation of an enterprise called Consalud– to reduce the time and money needed to import medication. Under Consalud, the Health Ministry will meet daily with various other enterprises to resolve bottlenecks. “Our Office has talked with the Office of Foreign Commerce with respect to cancelling debts that health enterprises owe the state. We’re also streamlining all the administrative procedures in the area of medical imports and income.”
According to some reports, on September 1, 2013, an organization called Doctors for Health petitioned the Ministry to rectify gaps in supply of medications. The President of the Venezuelan Pharmaceutical Federation, Freddy Ceballos claimed that there were problems with the distribution of 40% of needed medications because of difficulties in access to foreign currency needed for imports.
On May 20, 2014, Carlos Jesús Rivas Perez, an Aporrea commentator, noted, “The pharmaceutical industry, all based in capitalist countries, is one of the most influential politically and most powerful economically in the world. They use medication as a political weapon, manipulating scarcity to increase profits, discontent and anxiety”. Given this political and economic fact, Rivas Perez suggests the best solution is for Venezuela, like Brazil, to create a state laboratory to produce its own generic drugs.
Tosta indicated that the Ministry of Health is taking steps to increasing worker and productive capacity towards achieving the “medication sovereignty” that Rivas Perez suggested. To consolidate medication production, the Ministry is planning to institute post-graduate studies in pharmaceutical studies. Also, he reported that his ministry is negotiating with foreign enterprises to construct binational factories inside Venezuela to produce the most expensive pharmaceuticals—those used to treat cancer, HIV/AIDS and orthodontal problems.
When health care is a right
In fully capitalist countries, health care is a commodity to be sold for profit only to those who can afford it. In Venezuela, it is a right, guaranteed in the Constitution. As a result, life expectancy in Venezuela ranks among the highest in the developing world: 72 years for men and 79 years for women. Infant mortality declined from 22 per 1000 live births in 1998 to 14 per thousand live births in 2013.
Perhaps the institution most responsible for improving the health status of Venezuelans is Barrio Adentro: the 10,000 free primary health care clinics spread throughout the low income urban and rural areas of the country. Any resident, including an undocumented person, who has a medical need, receives care and medication at no charge. She or he only has to give his name, age and residential sector. In 2014, local centers also vaccinated three million children under six years of age against the basic preventable diseases.
When health care is a commodity, pharmaceutical companies rarely invest in finding cures for rare diseases endemic in poor populations. Meanwhile on May 20, at the World Health Assembly meeting in Geneva, Venezuela and Brazil signed a memo of understanding to strengthen and integrate measures to eradicate Oncocercosis, a disease endemic to the Yanomani indigenous people.