Members of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) parliamentary group and Center Party deputy chairman Jaanus Karilaid submitted a new bill on the Medicinal Products Act on Thursday morning which would essentially repeal the pharmacy reform slated to enter into force on April 1 and give anyone the freedom to run a pharmacy.
Three members of the Social Democratic Party (SDE) parliamentary group likewise submitted a bill of their own, with which they want to soften strict requirements for pharmacist-owned pharmacies and extend the implementation of the reform in areas that will not have a qualifying pharmacy as of April 1.
EKRE's bill would grant hospitals and family doctor centers the right to sell pharmaceuticals. It would also repeal restrictions on the establishment of pharmacies. Pharmacies themselves, meanwhile, would be given the right to purchase pharmaceuticals from wholesalers outside of Estonia or directly from manufacturers.
The junior coalition party believes that their bill would help stave off the risk that some rural areas may be left without pharmacy services.
"If we trust the medicines agencies of Finland, Sweden or France as much as we trust Estonia's State Agency of Medicines, then there should be no issue here," said EKRE deputy chairman and Minister of Finance Martin Helme. "It cannot be this government's policy that even more public services disappear from rural areas."
"If the main issue on the pharmacy market is vertical integration, i.e. pharmacies owned by wholesalers, who have to much power, then will this resolve this situation, or will it make this situation worse?" Reform Party chairwoman Kaja Kallas asked. "Taking a cursory glance at this, I'd say that this won't resolve this situation, but rather make it worse."
According to Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik (Center), the repealing of restrictions on the establishment of pharmacies will lead to a situation in which even more pharmacies are opened in bigger towns and cities, drawing the last pharmacists and pharmaceutical specialists away from rural areas and worsening the balance between town and rural pharmacies.
"This is creating an entirely new situation," Kiik said. "Those saying that this would be maintaining the current situation are mistaken; this isn't that. That means that, in this case, we'd get back to where things were five years ago."
The alternative bill submitted by three SDE MPs, meanwhile, would somewhat relax the conditions of the already passed Medicinal Products Act. In lieu of the current requirement of 51 percent ownership by a single pharmacist, for example, this bill would allow for the combined ownership of several pharmacists of at least 80 percent of shares in a pharmacy in rural areas. Areas struggling to meet new requirements by April 1 should also be given an extension until next January.
"Give rural areas the opportunity to move forward with this exception, should the State Agency of Medicines agree, but the pharmacy reform would be implemented as planned in bigger areas," explained MP Riina Sikkut, one of the initiators of the bill.
The social affairs minister, however, would still prefer that the pharmacy reform enter into force on April 1. The Reform Party would prefer the same, but is keeping its options open for now.
"We are very interested in what the Center Party's position is on this matter," Kallas said. "We will discuss this with our parliamentary group once the new week of sittings begins. We will all come together, having read the bill, and decide on our position." She did not rule out the possibility that Reform wouldn't support either new bill.
Helme: Are there any new impartial votes
Whether or not EKRE could get enough votes together to pass its bill is not clear, as demonstrated at a failed vote in December.
"Well I believe that those votes in favor have not decreased significantly in number," Helme said. "Now the question is whether the number of votes against have decreased, and whether there are any new impartial votes. We know that these divisions and differences run within parliamentary groups as well, and our request or suggestion for other parliamentary groups is, in that case, allow a free vote."
How the Center Party will vote still remains unclear.
"Last time there was a vote over the repeal of the pharmacy reform, the vote within Center's parliamentary group remained free: there were those that supported it, and there were also those who didn't support it," Kiik recalled. "We'll be able to see whether things will go this way again this time, or whether a joint position will be developed."
It has not yet been ruled out either that Social Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu chairman Tõnis Mölder (Center) may convene an extraordinary meeting next week to discuss EKRE's bill. The Social Democrats are hoping that their own alternative bill will likewise be taken into handling in parallel.
Editor: Aili Vahtla