According to the Buddha’s immortal words `Arogya Parama Labha’, Health is Wealth. Sri Lanka’s health service was not feeling healthy during the past year and a half and faced many challenges. The challenges were aggravated by the financial crisis. The media reported various incidents and scandals related to health, including the import of substandard medicines, a shortage of even essential medicines, an astronomical rise in pharmaceutical prices, the removal of data from National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) servers and the flight of doctors in search of greener pastures. But now Sri Lanka’s health sector is in the hands of the best-ever team. This best-ever team will be completed today when the new Health Secretary Dr. Palitha Mahipala assumes duties at the Health Ministry.
Now Sri Lanka’s Health Minister (Dr. Ramesh Pathirana) is a professional doctor and Sri Lanka’s Health Secretary is also a doctor. This is the very first time two doctors are leading the country’s healthcare system. We cannot expect a better team than this in order to protect and develop the health sector while providing a satisfactory health service to the people.
Dr. Palitha Mahipala is one of the best individuals ever to hold the position of the Health Secretary. He was a former Director General of Health Services (DGHS). Dr. Mahipala was appointed as the World Health Organization (WHO) Representative in Pakistan in 2019. He is qualified in the fields of public health, health sector management, business administration and economic development.
He has work experience with international organizations like the Global Fund and Gavi – the Vaccine Alliance, which played a major role during the Covid pandemic. He was a lecturer and examiner at the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine (PGIM) in Sri Lanka. He has published articles and research papers in many national and international journals. He is recognised as a prominent figure in the global medical sector.
He was a very people-friendly DGHS and often went to distant areas at midnight by train during the peak of natural and man-made disasters and assisted doctors who were on duty amidst extreme hardships. He bought meals and other essentials for them, spending his own money. The Government health sector ran smoothly without any hiccups during his time.
Late last month, Dr. Pathirana received the portfolio of the Health Minister. The most suitable person to hold this position is a doctor. It is more relevant now than before because `health’ was not well during the past few years. The ‘sick’ health sector was handed over to a doctor, giving relief to poor Sri Lankans who seek the help of the free health service through State-owned hospitals and other State medical institutions.
Health Minister Dr. Pathirana has pledged to take all the necessary decisions for the improvement of the Government health service along with the changes expected by the people of this country. These words gave comfort and solace to poor Sri Lankans who cannot afford to go to private hospitals or dispensaries which charge exorbitant sums even for simple procedures.
He started to “walk the talk” as soon as he assumed duties and by now the entire country can very clearly see the rapid healing process taking place in the Sri Lankan health sector. Nothing can be done overnight but the changes are taking place very speedily in order to rectify the glaring shortcomings in the health sector that were apparent during the past year and a half. This is much more than what the people expected from him.
For example, Dr. Pathirana told Parliament that 100 more essential drugs will come under a price cap with immediate effect. The price cap imposed by the Government only applies to 100 essential medicines currently and when price control is introduced for another 100 medicines, 200 types of medicines altogether will be under price control.
He said that one medicine is sometimes available in 10 or 15 local and imported brands and patients can buy medicines without difficulty by regulating a fair price. The Minister also said that this price control mechanism is being decided by a committee consisting of 11 experts related to medicine and economy. The Minister stated that 862 imported essential medicines are available in the country and 675 of them are imported through the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC). The Minister should also press for the tighter regulation of the private healthcare sector, where arbitrary rates are the norm.
This team of professional experts who handle the health of the country should be supported by all, especially politicians from all parties in and outside Parliament. They should not place obstacles in the path of these two individuals for personal reasons like they did during the peak of Covid-19. The people should be thankful to President Ranil Wickremesinghe for appointing fully qualified, talented and experienced professional experts to important positions in health and other crucial sectors. At the same time, he is showing all politicians the importance of qualifications, experience and talent. This is the very first time in Sri Lankan history that people witnessed such a brave act. After all, health is fundamental to any nation’s progress as it is impossible to move forward without a healthy population.