Croatia's anti-corruption police arrested 76 pharmaceutical company management and doctors in a bribery scandal.
By Drazen Remikovic for Southeast European Times in Zagreb -- 19/11/12
The management of Farmal and other pharmaceutical companies are suspected of bribing doctors to prescribe medicines they produced. [AFP]
The national-scale scandal in Croatia involving a pharmaceutical company and 600 primary care doctors could overshadow the indictments against the country's former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader as the largest corruption scandal in the country.
Last week, Croatia's Office for the Prevention of Corruption and Organised Crime (USKOK) arrested the entire board of local pharmaceutical company Farmal and 27 of the company's sales personnel, and charged them with bribing general practitioners to prescribe Farmal products drugs.
In addition, 49 doctors and one pharmacist were also arrested under the suspicion of medical prescription bribery. The investigation will also focus on 600 general practitioners around the country who are thought to have been involved in the scheme.
"Journalist Natasa Skaricic first discovered that [the bribery], which subsequently opened an investigation into this case," Vuk Djuricic, USKOK spokesman, told SETimes.
Rajko Ostojic, Croatian health minister, confirmed that the police action dubbed "Hippocrates" is ongoing.
"State prosecutor Mladen Bajic this morning told me about the police arrests. In order not to jeopardise the healthcare system, actions will now successively target more than 350 primary care doctors suspected of involvement," Ostojic told the media on Monday.
"We'll be tracking the medications doctors' prescribe, and watch for a doctor preferring a specific group of drugs. We'll clearly monitor potential causes of corruption and venues for corruption, and of course impose sanctions. Healthcare system will be computerized, and every doctor will have their code," Ostojic told the media.
Skaricic, a journalist and president of the Association for Research of the Public Sector, said uncovering this affair is a result of many years of research and work.
"Unfortunately, this is not a story about a pharmaceutical company, but about the whole system that functions this way. The affair will well shake the corrupt system and pharmacists in the future. However, I'm not an optimist when it comes to institutions. The health minister said yesterday it was 'a small group' of doctors involved. I think 600 is not a small group of doctors," Skaricic told SETimes.
Andrija Hebrang, former health minister and doctor, said that the whole situation is worrisome for the medical profession in Croatia.
"Every doctor gives a Hippocrates' oath which obliges him that such things will not come to his mind. This is a high figure, and I cannot believe that some 600 doctors were doing this for years. I expect that the authorities will vigorously investigate all, and that all doctors will be examined and eventually punished," Hebrang told SETimes.
Nikola Kristic, president of Transparency International Croatia, agrees.
"This case is bad for Croatian healthcare system, but it is good for the entire society. Great strides were done through years of struggle against corruption, but it's so deeply ingrained in the healthcare system that I don't think with this scandal corruption is done with," Kristic told SETimes.
A maximum sentence in corruption crime for bribes, and abuse of office, is 15-year imprisonment.
Croatia is scheduled to join the EU next July, but official Brussels has repeatedly stated that Croatia's efforts to fight widespread corruption and organised crime will be closely monitored before its EU entry.