SJB prescribes no-faith surgery to remove Health Ministry canker; Keheliya says ‘bring it on’

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By Sandun Jayawardana  

A beleaguered Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella faced growing calls to resign from opposition parliamentarians this week over the worsening crisis in the state health sector. On Friday, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) handed over a motion signed by 45 MPs to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, expressing their no-confidence in the minister.

The motion is being moved over the importation of allegedly substandard medicines and surgical equipment. The opposition claimed this had weakened the health sector and led to deaths. 

Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and others in the SJB raised issue throughout the week over what they alleged are serious problems in the country’s state health sector. On Tuesday, Mr. Premadasa told Parliament that there were severe shortages of medicines and surgical equipment in state hospitals, while deaths had been reported due to substandard medicines and issues with patient care and negligence.

“These incidents keep happening and we can’t take them lightly,” he stressed. The opposition leader added that steps should be taken to immediately investigate incidents where patients who had been admitted to hospital for minor ailments had allegedly died suddenly due to medicines administered to them. He also called for the removal of what he said were substandard medicines from stocks at state-run hospitals and asked that those who had imported them be held to account.

Minister Rambukwella pointed out that on his instructions, an expert committee had been appointed to investigate recent incidents of allergic reactions to drugs in several healthcare institutions. The report of this committee would be tabled in Parliament once it was received, he said.

The minister, however, alleged that there was a well-planned attack on the country’s free healthcare system by making false allegations regarding the widespread prevalence of substandard medicines in state-run hospitals. One injection which is alleged to have led to deaths had been in use in the country for 20 years, he added. Some batches of certain medicines, however, had been withdrawn after they failed quality assurance tests, he acknowledged.

Mr Rambukwella also defended the process of emergency procurement of medicines, saying that they were done according to the health sector emergency procurement process guidelines introduced by the Finance Ministry in June last year. He insisted that issues regarding the quality of these drugs did not arise since all the bidders were those that had registered with the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA).

Whatever the Health Minister might claim, the health sector was in serious crisis, said SJB MP Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, a former Health Minister. While the NMRA should have 139 pharmacists, only 29 were currently working at the authority as many of the qualified pharmacists had been transferred to the Health Ministry, he pointed out.

Only 10 laboratory technicians were working at its laboratory when 60 should be working there, he added. While the withdrawal of batches of medicines for failing quality assurance tests was a normal procedure, the issue here was that one of the alleged contaminated batches of a medicine had been in use even up until June this year though it had failed quality tests in January, he claimed.

Minister Rambukwella, though, accused the opposition of fear-mongering by indirectly claiming that the lives of those who used state hospitals were at risk.

The back-and-forth continued throughout the week. On Wednesday, Mr. Premadasa again raised issue over the reported shortage of a drug vital for caesarean operations at the Kalutara Hospital. He cited a leaked internal memo written by the hospital’s director noting that the hospital only had stocks of the drug sufficient for two weeks.

Minister Rambukwella said the director should have informed the matter to the Health Ministry’s Medical Supplies Division. Sufficient stocks had been dispatched to the hospital now, he said, adding that the move to discuss an internal memo was also part of a concerted attempt to attack the state health sector.

Mr. Rambukwella told the opposition he was waiting for them to present its no-confidence motion against him as the debate would give him the opportunity to respond at length to allegations levelled against him.

Amidst these issues, Parliament also finally put the finishing touches on the landmark Anti-Corruption Bill with the committee stage amendments passed without a vote on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, on Thursday (20), the Second Reading of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Bill was passed by a majority vote with amendments.

The bill was passed by a majority of 42 votes with 66 voting in favour and 24 against after National People’s Power (NPP) MP Vijitha Herath asked for a division.

Subsequently, amendments were added to the bill during the committee stage and the Third Reading of the Bill was passed without a division.

House unites to express Lanka’s support for Palestinian cause, condemns Israel’s policiesA usually divided House showed a rare display of unity on Tuesday during an adjournment debate on the plight of the Palestinian people. 

The adjournment motion on the “Difficulties Faced by the Palestinian People at Present” was moved by Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Parliamentarian Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, and received unanimous support. MPs from both sides condemned Israel’s recent deadly raids into the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied territories.

Presenting the motion, Mr Bakeer Markar noted that historically, all parties in Sri Lanka’s Parliament have unanimously supported the two-state solution decided by the United Nations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Nevertheless, what the world is witnessing today on Palestinian land is how Israel is openly challenging institutions charged with ensuring global justice, he added.

“I do not view the motion I present today as being limited to the Middle East or the Arab World or to Muslims and Christians in Palestine. This is a question of democracy. It is a question of human dignity, of apartheid, of social injustice, of forcible occupation, expansionism, and a strategy of new colonialism,” said the MP.

Imthiaz Bakeer Markar

Joining the debate, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who once spearheaded the Sri Lanka-Palestine Solidarity Committee, said, “Thousands of lives have been lost due to this conflict that has persisted for nearly seven decades. Today, we are seeing attacks on refugee camps as well. This is totally unjustified.”

Making an equally powerful statement on the Palestinian issue was Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. “We emphasise that the Sri Lankan people stand with the Palestinian people in the face of these cruel, murderous, and barbaric attacks. We ask Israel to stop this culture of killing and come to the negotiating table to resolve this issue in the name of brotherhood, reconciliation, and peace,”

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Leader Rauff Hakeem questioned why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not release at least a statement on behalf of the Sri Lankan government even three days after Israel’s attacks on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied Palestinian territories. “Where is our conscience? We have been a friend of the Palestinian people. Several heads of state have been chairing the
Sri Lanka-Palestinian Friendship Association. So I do not know why we have kept silent on this matter. Mere condemnations won’t do,” said the SLMC leader.

Also speaking in support of the Palestinian cause was former President and Sri Lanka Freedom Party Leader Maithripala Sirisena. He said the raids Israel launched on the Jenin refugee camp were the worst attacks conducted within the past 20 years. “From the time of Srimavo Bandaranaike, the SLFP has always stood with the people of Palestine. We condemn the inhumane treatment that is being inflicted on the Palestinian people, which is nothing short of terrorism.”

To stand in solidarity with the Palestinian nation and the Palestinian people is quite simply the right thing to do because what Israel is doing today is wrong and to stand for what is right and point out what is wrong is not to be anti-Jewish or anti-Semite, stressed Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) Leader Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam.

Explaining the Government’s stand, Foreign Affairs State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya said Sri Lanka was deeply concerned over the recent escalation of violence in the occupied Palestinian territory including the incidents in Jenin on the West Bank which resulted in the tragic loss of civilian lives and extensive damage to property. “Sri Lanka continues to stand with the people of Palestine in achieving their legitimate aspirations and has always maintained a consistent policy on the Palestinian cause and has extended unwavering support for the Palestinians in multilateral flora as well,” he asserted.

Sri Lanka calls on all parties to address the worsening humanitarian situation and prevent further escalations, added the state minister.

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