Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) deputy chair Helle-Moonika Helme says that the ship has sailed on changes to the government's planned pharmacy reform, adding that large-scale pharmacy closures are likely, just as the novel coronavirus continues to spread. Helme also did not rule out her party voting against social affairs minister Tanel Kiik (Center) should a no-confidence motion emerge.
Talking to ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" on Tuesday night, in the aftermath of a Riigikogu vote which blocked an EKRE bill to change course on the reforms.
"There are certain procedures at the Riigikogu and this time-frame, which I think closed today. Figuratively speaking, the hatches have been battened down and there's a storm coming – let's see what happens," Helme told news anchor Priit Kuusk.
EKRE's bill would have have amended the Medicinal Products Act to make it less restrictive to pharmacists in terms of ownership and structure, as well as permitting hospitals to run their own retail pharmacies and not be tied to domestic Estonian wholesalers.
Its defeat leaves the government's reform back on track for April 1, and would require dispensing pharmacists to own a minimum of 51 percent stake in the pharmacies they work in.
Critics of the plans – which have been on the table for five years, since they were a requirement of the Medicinal Products Act passed in 2015, say that they would lead to widespread closures of pharmacies, particularly in rural areas, as only a minority of Estonia's nearly 600 pharmacies comply with the regulations.
"The responsibility is then likely to be shifted," Helme said, when questioned on what would happen if major closures became a reality.
"If something happens, we must first and foremost look for a way out of the crisis and this situation. If we look now at 200 pharmacies closing (approximately the number which apparently do not comply with ownership requirements-ed.), 27,000 people will be left without a running pharmacy service, and about 100,000 will have to travel further than they had done. Most of the pharmacy closures will affect our sparsely populated, rural population."
When asked what she thought would actually happen on April 1, Helme said that: "The pharmacies are likely to close. I am very concerned. Coronavirus is on its way, and when we close our pharmacies, it is more than just a closure."
"Five years ago, this law was passed, and attempts have been made to amend it; the Reform Party itsself presented a more-or-less similar draft a year ago. I am very sorry they did not support it today. Unfortunately, their instincts for a free market economy evaporated today," Helme said.
The explanatory memorandum in the EKRE bill was reportedly almost verbatim the same as a Reform Party bill from 2018. The Social Democratic Party (SDE) is also presenting two rival bills on Wednesday to the Riigikogu. However, the parliament's social affaris committee has recommended that these be voted down, in other words the vote will be on whether they should be read at all, rather than their content, as with the EKRE bill on Tuesday.
Helme also said her party might consider voting against social affairs minister Tanel Kiik (Center), whose ministry is responsible for implementing the reforms, if a no-confidence vote were put to the house.
"We'll look at that, though this is just one minister," she said. EKRE is in coalition with the Center Party and Isamaa, which has 56 seats in the 101-seat Riigikogu and thus a majority. Four votes of no-confidence have been held in the government, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, and interior minister Mart Helme (EKRE) since the coalition entered office in late April last year. All of these have been defeated, since coalition MPs have always voted with the government so far.
Editor: Andrew Whyte