Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Centre) has guaranteed social affairs minister Tanel Kiik's (Center) position, in the event that pharmacies remain closed after the planned reforms come into effect on April 1.
Ratas also put the onus on the five-year preparation for the reforms, which will place nominal control of pharmacies into the hands of dispensing pharmacists and away from the larger wholesale chains, on Kiik's predecessors, who hailed from the Social Democratic Party (SDE), now in opposition.
Speaking on ERR's Vikerraadio broadcast "Stuudios on peaminister", Ratas said that with less than two months till the reforms come into effect, fomenting further uncertainty was pointless.
Ratas added that the Riigikogu vote which overturned a replacement bill, practically the chamber's last piece of business before breaking for Christmas, had not led to any shift in the balance of power.
Both the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), which is in office with Center, and SDE, tabled their own rival pharmacy reform bills last week. SDE's would have tweaked the ownership requirements to make them more flexible, allowing for a phased-in transition period. EKRE's bill, which was reportedly very similar in parts to a 2018 bill tabled by the opposition Reform Party, would have reversed the course, to the advantage of the large chains.
The bill which was voted down in December had attempted to do same, putting the original plan for dispensing pharmacists to own 51 percent or more of the pharmacies they work in back on track.
Ratas: Buck stops with me
Presenters Arp Müller and Mirko Ojakivi asked the prime minister what would happen should 30 or more smaller towns and villages in the country wake up on April 1 to find either their pharmacies closed, or selling only plasters and thermometers.
"The Prime Minister is responsible for the government's actions.," Ratas said.
"This reform has not come to the fore as the major brainchild of today's government. The social affairs ministry and minister Tanel Kiik has done their jobs well. He (i.e. Kiik) has done well in a ministry which used to have two ministers (the health and labor minister and the social protection minister-ed)."
Ratas said that he was puzzled by SDE's bill, noting that the five-year preparatory period since the reforms were first planned, has seen the relevant ministerial post almost solely stocked by SDE members (Rannar Vassiljev , Jevgeni Ossinovski and Riina Sikkt. The current coalition and thus Kiik took office in late April last year-ed.).
"Any bill that reverses the reform, which is due to come into effect on April 1, will not come from the present government," Ratas said.
"It was an SDE proposal that in settlements where there was a risk of pharmacy closure, a transitional period to year-end would be in place. Then there is the EKRE draft, where ownership does not have to be just the pharmacist's, which would have turned the clock back on the reforms by five years, to a situation where the market is all," Ratas said.
"There is no support for a gradual transition within the coalition. In such a confusing situation, I can only see that take a firm path to complete the reform is needed," Ratas said.
Critics of the reforms have said that the requirements will leave smaller population centers in particular without a functioning pharmacy. According to some reports over half of Estonia's close to 600 pharmacies do not currently meet the requirements, with just one pharmacy that did not do so at year end, fulfilling them a month later.
Another concern is that large wholesalers will operate their pharmacies until almost literally the eleventh hour, on March 31, possibly hampering the overnight transition to pharmacist-owned functions the next morning.
Editor: Andrew Whyte