BY Shehara Ratnasinghe
In response to allegations that his recent visit to India was funded by an Indian pharmaceutical company, thus leading to a conflict of interest, Minister of Health Keheliya Rambukwella claimed that his visit was funded by a friend due to the Minister’s credit cards having reached their credit limits, and that he has since reimbursed his friend.
Rambukwella, addressing a media briefing convened yesterday (28) at the Health Ministry premises, claimed he had reimbursed his friend upon landing in India.
“I have travelled to 86 countries. This is my 17th passport. I have even travelled to England with my parents when I was eight years old. Due to my extensive travel schedule, I maintain close relationships with certain travel companies. Because of these relationships, there are two or three travel companies that grant me massive discounts.
As I am a Cabinet Minister, I could have used Government funds for this trip. However, I purchased the ticket myself, as the Government advises us to be economical. My secretary tried booking the flight ticket from online travel agencies using my credit cards, but the cards were rejected due to the recent imposition of a weekly spending limit of Rs. 140,000.
Therefore, I informed a friend of mine to place the booking on my behalf. The very first thing I did upon landing in India was to repay my friend in cash,” he said.
Making this statement, he displayed a receipt to the journalists present at the press conference, claiming that it attested to the payment for the ticket not being made by a pharmaceutical company, but by his friend.
He also addressed concerns raised in certain quarters which questioned the expertise, including qualifications and training, that he possessed to look into matters pertaining to the quality of medicinal drugs.
“Some have inquired about the knowledge I have to ascertain the quality of medicines. Hence, I advised the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) Chief Executive Officer (Dr. Vijith Gunasekera) to accompany me to India again to look into the same. As the Minister of Health, if we are importing goods worth $ 250 million, don’t I have the right to go and look into these industries using my own funds?”
Claiming that an Indian pharmaceutical company had settled the relevant bills, including the hotel bills, incurred by Rambukwella during his visit to India from 21 to 24 December to inspect a pharmaceutical manufacturing factory belonging to the same company, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) called for a formal investigation to be conducted into the matter earlier this week.
Speaking at a media briefing, FSP Education Secretary Pubudu Jayagoda said: “Rambukwella has travelled in business class. After that, he stayed at a five-star hotel in Chennai, where the charge for a room per day is $ 400. On the relevant invoice, the Indian company’s email address is mentioned in place of the payee’s information. This is only the room charge. We don’t know how much money the company allocated for other related facilities and air tickets.”
Whilst accusing Rambukwella of wasting public funds, acting fraudulently, and misleading the Cabinet with false information, the FSP also raised concerns over officials of the relevant institutions with the relevant knowledge and expertise, who should have been a part of the visit, having been excluded.
The FSP also claimed that the drugs that will be imported will be brought down as an emergency purchase sans the following of the relevant tender procedure. Raising further concerns regarding Rambukwella reaching an agreement regarding the import of 28 types of drugs, the FSP alleged that the said drugs are not registered by the NMRA which is the body authorised to register medicinal drugs.
Moreover, the FSP pointed out that the pharmaceuticals manufacturing firm from which the said drugs are to be imported has been blacklisted from purchasing from by the State Pharmaceuticals Manufacturing Corporation back in 2019 over quality issues.