Surgical gloves muddle: Shocking details surface

As bribery probe continues

By Suresh Perera

Amidst a continuing top-level bribery probe, shocking details have now emerged on how the Health Ministry’s Medical Supplies Division (MSD) had sought No Objection Letters (NOLs) from the Cosmetic Devices and Drugs Regulatory Authority (CDDRA) on behalf of an unregistered supplier to procure sterile surgical gloves valued at millions of rupees.

This supplier had been importing consignments over the past six months ostensibly on the assertion that "registration is pending", which is considered strange, and has now raised questions as bids are awarded only to registered companies listed in the MSDdata base, industry officials said.

Despite its unregistered status, the supplier had successfully bid for multi-million rupee tenders on the basis that the "company had applied for CDDRA registration in February 2012 but have still not received the registration certificate", they said.

How can a supplier claim that registration for his company is "pending" when it is the CDDRA’s prerogative to either entertain or reject it?, they queried. "This company, it appears, has been permitted to bid on the mere presumption of securing registration".

In a letter to the MSD, the supplier says, "We had to request NOLs from CDDRA for each shipment from India. Please note that for each and every shipment we imported, the CDDRA released separate NOLs for us to clear the goods".This clearly shows the supplier had secured the release of many consignments earlier through the intervention of the MSD on the basis that "registration was pending", the officials noted. "They have been having their way".

"In terms of the law, a supplier who is not registered with the CDDRA cannot import any medical supplies or cosmetics", CDDRA’s Director, Dr. Hemantha Beneragama, clarified.

To claim that "registration is pending" means the company has still not been registered, he pointed out. "This is, in no way, a license to bid for tenders".

"Though it is not the general practice, the MSD or State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC) can seek a NOL on behalf of a supplier, in case of vital, emergency supplies", he said.

It is either the MSD or the SPC which evaluates the process and recommends to the CDDRA the issuance of a NOL, he explained. "In such cases, for each consignment a separate NOL has to be sought".

The registration process takes a minimum six months as the documentation has to be sent to the College of Surgeons, Beneragama elaborated. "We have to adhere to procedure".

Asked whether this supplier has been registered as he claims to have applied seven months ago, he replied, "I will have to check on the status".

"No, registration has still not been granted as there were reservations about the quality of the Indian products they supplied", industry officials asserted. "That’s why, even after seven months they are still awaiting official recognition as a supplier".

The need to register a company to tender for medical supplies seem to be irrelevant if there is influence from a medical intern who doubles up as a "Coordinating Secretary" cum "Medical Advisor" to the Minister who can work wonders, they asserted. "After all, big bucks are up for the take".

"There was a dearth of sterile surgical gloves at the time after a particular supplier was blacklisted after he was found quoting a higher price on direct local purchases", Beneragama recalled. "This led to emergency procurement".

What happened was that a dominant Malaysian supplier who had been providing stocks of premium quality products for almost a decade was deliberately edged out for certain interested parties to take over the market, the officials said. "They didn’t want a level playing field".

As there was a shortage, this company had sold a stock of the more expensive powder-free latex gloves to hospitals to meet pressing surgical commitments, they said. "They were given at a discounted Rs. 62 per pair when supplies are sold to private hospitals at Rs. 83".

Patients who undergo cardiac surgical procedures at private health facilities are charged Rs. 250 for each pair of these specialized gloves used by surgeons, they noted.

With a witch-hunt unleashed, this supplier was marginalized and this opened the door to a flood of substandard products by suppliers, some of whom were political favorites, the officials alleged.

Medical administrators in the government health sector have also expressed concern over the awarding of a tender for consignments of gloves to an unregistered supplier, as exclusively reported in The Sunday Island last week.

Dr. Rukshan Bellana, Coordinator, Medical Administrators Forum

has written to Health Secretary, Dr. Nihal Jayathilake, asking him to examine the file awarding this tender as incidents of this nature bring all medical administrators into disrepute. (See elsewhere for the Forum’s statement)

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