Updated at 11.55am

The Health Commissioner in the Ombudsman’s Office has accused the government of “oppressing” patients, denying them free and essential medicine they are entitled to and of repeatedly breaching laws by refusing to revise discriminatory protocols.

In the latest annual report for 2018, Commissioner for Health, Charles Messina, slammed the government for dragging its feet since 2013 to resolve discriminatory regulations which are denying patients their essential medicines.

According to the report, the main issues between the commissioner and the Health Ministry are three.

These are the entitlement of free medicine in certain cases, which the government is denying due to costs; discriminatory protocols (rules) enacted by the government which determine the entitlement of certain medicines; and the provision of health services in some extraordinary cases.

“The non-implementation of the recommendations about discriminatory and illegal protocols, recommended in 2013, is a very serious matter because they were meant to solve the discrimination and illegality created,” the commissioner said.

“The patients are purely and simply being oppressed,” he charged.

The commissioner said that despite various meetings to solve the impasse, including with the Office of the Prime Minister, there seems to be no end to this problem because the Health Ministry “is very reluctant to take any action”.

Insisting that the government was ignoring the Ombudsman’s Office – a constitutional set-up – the Commissioner for Health accused the administration of abuse.

“The Ministry for Health seems to be taking advantage of the fact that the Office of the Ombudsman does not have executive powers,” the Commissioner said.

It is unacceptable that the government ignores a constitutionally-set-up body

Health industry sources told Times of Malta that the Health Commissioner has warned the government for many years about deficiencies in the system and has in the past even presented reports to the Office of the Prime Minister and Parliament.

“Although most of the problems can be attributed to bureaucracy and the lack of will by the Health Ministry, it is unacceptable that the government ignores a constitutionally-set up body over a change of protocol and rules for the past six years,” the sources said.

In his report, the commissioner gave examples of the government’s resistance to solve the simplest of recommendations.

One of the 2017 cases concerns the purchase of a few pairs of elastic stockings which are used to improve blood circulation to cater for the smallest and the largest of sizes, the Commissioner said.

“It is unbelievable that after more than two years the matter is still pending,” he added.

Branded medicines

The issue of branded medicines is also another bone of contention which, according to the Ombudsman, the government seems to be resisting.

While the government normally provides generic medicines to save costs, in the case of some exceptional cases, patients are ordered by their doctors to take branded (originals) products, as these are more effective.

The commissioner said that despite Health Minister Chris Fearne’s public commitment to revise the protocols and start providing these type of medicines for such cases, this has not happened.

To solve the issue, in 2017 the Health Minister set up a committee, called the Exceptional Medical Treatment Committee, to discuss and decide on pending requests by patients.

“Unfortunately, the committee moved the goalposts with the result that the subject became the medicinal and not the patient,” the commissioner observed.

The commissioner said this was a matter of grave concern, because “unless given the appropriate treatment, patients will suffer the consequences”.

Civil service waits

Asked on Wednesday to react to the Ombudsman's findings, principal permanent secretary Mario Cutajar said the civil service would be analysing the report and taking action.

“We always take action,” he said, adding that it was too early to comment further.

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