Iraq: Health ministry fights corruption
BAGHDAD, 16 June (IRIN) - Following months of rumours, police have arrested several people on suspicion of stealing US $10 million worth of medicine and selling it on the black market, the new inspector-general at the Ministry of Health told IRIN in Baghdad.
Medicine bought for hospitals earlier this year seemed to disappear quickly, said Adel Abdullah Muhsin, the new inspector-general. US administrator Paul Bremer recently named independent inspector-generals in all Iraqi ministries to investigate allegations of corruption and kickbacks.
Despite the ministry's virtually non-existent inventory system, Muhsin enlisted 60 pharmacists across the country to help him find the missing drugs. The pharmacists quickly came back with their verdict - medicine was stolen from warehouses, it was stolen from hospitals, it was even stolen on its way to patients, he said.
"Earlier this year, we released 1,000 tons of medical equipment and medicine and still everyone complained that there was no medicine," Muhsin said. "We found a lot of discrepancy and missing items. A lot of money is leaking out."
Arthritis and anti-hypertension drugs and others used to treat chronic diseases are the most commonly stolen items, said Hamid Aziz Mahmoud, a pharmacist in the Ministry of Health administration. Health officials earlier this year complained that they had very few chronic disease drugs in their warehouses, blaming the problem on dangerous conditions on the roads.
Patients at hospitals say they often have to pay extra for essential medicines because of the shortage.
Most private pharmacies around the capital seem well-stocked, however. Many medicines can be bought for less than US $2, and none require a prescription. "We try our best, but we need enforcement to make sure the regulations are followed in our country," said Mahmoud. "As long as there is a wide difference in price, the traffickers will make plans to sell drugs," he added.
Now, officials will build an inventory system from scratch to try and solve the problem, said Ahmed al-Talibi, director-general of Kimadia, the state company for drugs and medical appliances in the Ministry of Health. As all approvals are currently done manually, it's very easy to turn a 3 into a 30 for example, al-Talibi said, since the Arabic zero is a dot. In addition, the huge volumes of paperwork make it easy to hide orders for stolen drugs and medical equipment, he said.
"We can stop the first problem, but they probably take trucks and containers, too," al-Talibi told IRIN. Creating a computerised inventory would be a "major step" in breaking the corruption, but is not enough, Muhsin said. The inspector-general is also calling for all warehouse workers to be fired, since he says they are responsible for what's in their stores, even if they're not the ones stealing.
Because there were so many rumours that medical equipment and drugs were stolen, the Lifeline, Relief in Crisis, NGO decided to help the Ministry of Health create an inventory system, said Branko Dubajic, programme coordinator. But even though he worked on the project for 14 months, he got nowhere, he said.
An official at one international medical aid agency working in Iraq said the agency worked directly with hospitals when donating medicine and equipment, to make sure it wasn't stolen on the way to its destination. A follow-up audit is done, the official said, declining to be named for security reasons. However, because medicines are considered consumables, there's no penalty if none are left when the audit is done, he explained.
Health officials would pay to get the stolen medical equipment back, al-Talibi said. He believed X-ray machines and ultrasound machines, along with other high-tech items donated to Iraq, were probably sold cheap to neighbouring countries such as Syria, Jordan, Turkey and Iran.
Investigating the corruption has been very dangerous to health officials, according to al-Talibi. His car has been hit by gunmen twice, his driver still recuperating from being shot in the leg. He added that his life had been threatened three further times by people he says who "don't like to see changes".
Now that the quality of drugs available to Iraqis is going up, with the ministry buying more from Western Europe rather than from other Middle East countries, al-Talibi said he expected the amount of theft to rise before it goes down.
"The temptation to steal will be higher, because the profits the thieves can make will be higher," al-Talibi said.
Muhsin agreed with the danger, although until now he said he had managed to keep a lower profile than al-Talibi. "We're squeezing them now. We're fighting it," Muhsin said. "But these are organised groups, and they are very dangerous," he maintained.
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