No off-schedule meeting of the Riigikogu's Social Affairs Committee is due, according to its chair, despite speculation that it might be needed in the light of two rival bills submitted by the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and the Social Democratic Party (SDE) last week, which would alter the course of the government's proposed pharmacy reforms, substantively so in the case of EKRE's bill.
At the same time, the committee chair, Tõnis Mölder (Center) did not rule out waiting for the government's decision on the matter. In effect, because the government is under no obligation to look at both bills in detail (EKRE is in the coalition, SDE is in opposition), neither is the social affairs committee in any hurry to convene an extraordinary meeting to do so.
The government's own pharmacy reform, which has faced strong lobbying from large-chain pharmacy wholesalers and was scrapped in late 2019, only to be reinstated again, would place control nominally in the hands of qualified dispensing pharmacists, by requiring them to have a minimum 51 percent-stake in an outlet, effectively compelling them to become small business owners.
Critics have said that this could spell the end of small-town and rural pharmacies, pointing to evidence that only a minority of Estonia's close to 600 pharmacies currently comply with the bill's requirements, less than two months before it is due to come into force.
Whereas EKRE's proposal aimed to liberalize the market further and allow the import of medicines, circumventing the Estonian-owned wholesalers altogether, SDE would make for a softer version of the proposed reforms, easing the requirements for pharmacists.
When the two rival bills were submitted last Thursday – along with an SDE request that both buills be evaluated in parallel and simultaneously – MPs assumed the Social Affairs Committee would hold an extraordinary meeting, according to ERR's online news in Estonian, with a view to getting the EKRE version passed.
April 1 drawing near
That hasn't happened, however. Social affairs committee chair Tõnis Mölder (Center) says that no extraordinary meeting was ever on the table.
"The social affairs committee is not convening extraordinarily. In theory [the two bills] could reach the commission's [regular] agenda next week, but it is too early to say when," Mölder said.
Even the timing of the debate on the "official" reforms due to come into effect on April 1 is not clear, including whether this would happen before the government reached a position on the EKRE and SDE proposals; moreover this means moving forward on both the latest alternative draft bills is a moot point should the government favor one or other of them.
"It is still open whether and how we proceed ,or whether we wait for the government's position on both bills. In the absence of a swift draft bill appearing; in this situation, we can expect a position from the government, but maybe it's not overly important
Mölder also said that he had not set the pace for pharmacy reform, when asked whether this had been too hasty.
When asked if the pace of pharmacy reform was hasty, Mölder replied that he had not dictated this pace.
"Naturally, I would concede that if there is anything more to be squared away with pharmacy reform, then there isn't much time left - April 1 is on the horizon. If the purpose is to amend the law, it makes sense to find out what parliament makes of these bills," he said, adding that a decision on whether and to what extent the social affairs committee would address pharmacy reform would b clear by the end of this week.
Major pharmacy wholesalers include Magnum Medical, which supplies the Apotheka chain, and Tamro, which does the same for Benu pharmacies.
Editor: Andrew Whyte