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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Zurabov Grilled Over Drug Subsidy Program

Itar-TassZurabov, left, and his deputy Vladimir Starodubov at the Duma on Friday
Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov on Friday presented urgent proposals to the State Duma to remedy the current crisis affecting a government-sponsored prescription drug program.

Amid calls for his resignation, Zurabov put forward a raft of proposals, including the establishment of a dedicated 20 billion ruble ($770 million) fund designed to cover the cost of the most expensive medicines. He also suggested boosting the authority of the government agency in charge of administering the program, adding that the situation would improve within three weeks.

"There is not a problem with medicines in the country," Zurabov told Duma deputies, Interfax reported. "This crisis is not an organizational crisis or a technical crisis, but principally a financial one."

The prescription drug program, which was launched in 2005 with an initial budget of 34.1 billion rubles ($1.3 billion) for 2006, was designed to supply much-needed medicines for ailments including diabetes, cancer, hemophilia and multiple sclerosis.

Under the program pharmaceutical firms provide medicine to pharmacies through distributors previously selected by regional administrations. The Health and Social Development Ministry later reimburses the companies, calculating the sum owed using pharmacy receipts.

By the middle of last year, spending on the program had exceeded the earmarked sum by 38.8 billion rubles ($1.5 billion), leaving pharmaceutical companies essentially to bankroll the plan to the tune of $1 billion and leading to widespread shortages of medicines across the country during the first months of 2007.

With two Duma committees set to report back on Zurabov's proposals April 4, the United Russia party agreed to drop calls for Zurabov's dismissal, although initial reactions to his performance remained frosty.

"As yet, it seems to me that we haven't heard clearly formulated plans," Duma Speaker and United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov said.

"United Russia's position is that you cannot call the work of the ministry satisfactory," said Andrei Isayev, chairman of the Duma Committee for Labor and Social Policy.

Deputies from other Duma factions, including the Communists and Rodina, persisted in their calls for Zurabov to step down.

"Mikhail Yuryevich [Zurabov], we seem to be present at some sort of theater of the absurd," said Alexander Chuyev, a deputy from the nationalist Rodina bloc. "We are listening to a long speech in which there is not one word about what you personally are answering for."

Other deputies called for even more wide-ranging measures to tackle what is seen as a systemic failure within Zurabov's ministry.

"The Health and Social Development Ministry should be done away with and two ministries created in its place," Communist faction chief Boris Kibirev said.

Earlier this month, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev weighed in on the crisis, telling an online news conference that an urgent solution was required.

Medvedev also said, however, that the ministry had to deal with complications not under its control -- a reference to allegations about corruption within the drug subsidy program.