The Colombian government under President Petro has accused the former Health Minister of the previous government of excessive purchases of malaria drugs during the presidency of Iván Duque (2018-2022). Fernando Ruiz, who became a well-known face through his appearances in Colombian media during the toughest months of the pandemic, was in charge of the Ministry of Health, the same ministry now accused of wasting public resources on unnecessary medication purchases.
Some media outlets have seen this as a retaliation by the current health authorities in Colombia in response to reports that emerged this week accusing them of spoiling 7.8 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, with 7.5 million doses wasted under the current government, which took office in August 2022.
According to information now in the possession of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the initial purchase of malaria drugs should have been a total of 104,000 doses, but due to incorrect projections, Health officials ended up acquiring a total of 2 million units.
Lawsuit for Excessive Purchases
Consequently, the legal director of the Ministry of Health, Rodolfo Enrique Salas, has filed a lawsuit against the former Health Minister, Fernando Ruiz, who headed this ministry during Ivan Duque’s government, for having excessively purchased malaria drugs during the COVID-19 health crisis.
The lawsuit includes charges of embezzlement in favor of third parties, contracts without compliance with legal requirements, and prevarication by omission. These are all alleged crimes committed by a public official due to mismanagement of public resources or knowingly making irregular decisions.
The medications in question are artemether and lumefantrine, which are used to treat the tropical disease malaria, transmitted by mosquito bites. There is such an excess of this medication that the government is considering donating nearly 2 million doses to Pakistan, a country where malaria is endemic and lacks sufficient medication to deal with the consequences of the disease.
The public contract was formalized for 9 billion Colombian pesos with the Pan American Health Organization, an entity under the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to government data, the surplus has resulted in 19,727,121 medications stored. According to the lawsuit filed in court, “the difference between what was acquired and the actual need was so outrageous that it is clearly evident that the process is flawed in its legal and technical content, as it does not comply with the principle of planning and identification of the real insufficiency to be covered,” as stated in the complaint filed by the current government.
President Duque Defends the Minister
The lawsuit does not focus solely on the then-Minister Fernando Ruiz but also includes some of the most important officials from that time in the Ministry of Health. However, the former president, and ultimately the highest authority in the government, Ivan Duque, has already come to the defense of Minister Ruiz’s performance.
In a message posted on his social media, Duque stated that “Fernando Ruiz is an honest man, a technical healthcare professional who took over the Ministry of Health amid the worst health crisis in recent history and has had an unblemished career throughout his professional life.”
However, the former president went further and linked these attacks on Ruiz to his opposition to the healthcare reform being promoted by the current government in Congress. “Today, due to his opposition to the disastrous healthcare reform proposed by the government, which aims to return to the days of the Social Security system, he is being pursued and accused of purchasing medications during times of great international price volatility,” Duque wrote.
Fernando Ruiz Against Health Reform
It is true that the former minister has been one of the most outspoken critics of the healthcare reform proposed by the Petro government, which aims to give more weight to public management of a healthcare system which is mainly financed with public money but mostly run by private companies.
The system, in place for 30 years, has faced repeated crises, with most of the companies providing services under it going bankrupt, and its operation being financed by user contributions and funds from the state.
However, the system has been staunchly defended by former Minister Ruiz, who argues that the proposed reform, if approved, will lead to an increase in waiting lists for medical care. Ruiz has also criticized what has been done so far in healthcare by the new government, citing the example of the island department of San Andres and Providencia as evidence, in his view, of a setback in critical care situations.
The confrontation between the Petro government and former Minister Duque goes back a long way. Ruiz has questioned many of the reports published by the health authorities of the government, such as when Petro questioned the number of doctors per 100,000 inhabitants in Colombia compared to other countries and the training of Colombian medical professionals. Ruiz quickly countered these figures, albeit without providing additional supporting evidence.
The legal process against Fernando Ruiz and some of his prominent officials in the Ministry of Health is continuing in the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which has not made any public statements regarding the matter to date.