Discussions about the planned liberalization of pharmacies began in a tense atmosphere yesterday, as pharmacists responded to the government’s intention to slash their profit margins by threatening protests. Health Minister Andreas Loverdos held his first meeting with pharmacists yesterday to discuss how their sector would be affected by the plans to open up so-called closed professions, one of the commitments Greece has made to the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Loverdos attempted to reassure the pharmacists that any changes in legislation would not affect the way that licenses are granted for new pharmacies to open but that the government would be targeting the profit margins on medicines. He said that pharmacists make a state-guaranteed profit of about 35 percent on the goods they sell and that this was too high. He added that the government wants to rein in public spending on medicines by 1.1 billion euros this year and 1.8 billion next year so that it drops to pre-2004 levels. Loverdos also said that the number of pharmacies in Greece (about 12,000) is too high. He suggested that as more pharmacies open, more money is spent on drugs, rather than creating greater competition. The head of the Panhellenic Pharmaceutical Association, Dimitris Vagionas, rejected Loverdos’s claims of excessive profits and argued that pharmacists only make a post-tax profit of 23.8 percent on medicines and that they have seen their revenues drop by 40 percent this year. He claimed that any attempt to trim their profit margins would lead to 15 percent of pharmacies shutting down. Vagionas also pointed out that pharmacies are owed a combined total of 400 million euros by the healthcare organization for civil servants (OPAD). Loverdos said that the outstanding payments for February and March would be made next week but the pharmacists said they were not satisfied by this and are considering holding strikes as of October 1.