Liberalization plan stokes strong reaction

The government?s determination to liberalize some of Greece?s most high-profile so-called closed professions is due to be tested over the coming days as pharmacists and lawyers decided on Monday to go on strike to protest measures that aim to remove barriers to competitors entering their sectors.

The pharmacists led the way by declaring that they would shut their stores across Greece from tomorrow through Friday this week. They also plan to strike on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday next week.

Health Minister Andreas Loverdos has proposed that a bill due to be submitted to Parliament this week should allow any qualified pharmacist to obtain a license to operate a pharmacy, removing the advantage that the children of existing pharmacists have in running their own businesses. It will also allow a license to be issued as long as the pharmacy has a potential customer base of 1,000 people rather than the current 1,500. The draft law further proposes that pharmacies be allowed to open on Monday and Wednesday afternoons and on Saturdays. Finally, pharmacies will have to discount by 4.5 percent medicines that are paid for by social security funds, according to the bill.

The pharmacists say they are unhappy about several of the government?s proposals and do not believe that Loverdos is willing to negotiate with them. ?The dialogue with the ministry has ended in disappointment because it was never a genuine gesture,? said the head of the Greek Pharmacists? Association, Thodoris Abatzoglou. ?We disagree on four points: on the proposed opening hours, which we regard as excessive; on the ownership issue, which is the most serious issue for us; on the rebates for the social security funds; and on the population criteria, which will lead to thousands of new pharmacies opening and the destruction of the pharmaceutical system.?

Speaking to Flash Radio, Loverdos indicated that he is not willing to back down from the key positions in the bill. ?On Monday and Wednesday afternoons, pharmacies are closed for stock taking – what?s the problem if they sell some medicines as well?? said the minister. ?On Saturday, when all the other stores are open, they are closed, claiming that their turnover is too small. So what? By opening on Saturdays, they serve insured workers who want to get medicines. We are not obliging anyone to open, we are saying that it is up to each pharmacy to decide.?

The government is trying to remove similar barriers, such as geographical restrictions, to people practicing law. However, negotiations in this sector have also broken down and lawyers have decided to strike Wednesday through Friday. Doctors will also strike on Thursday in protest at the government?s bill on primary healthcare.