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Sarkozy vows health system fix after drug furore

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 20 Jan 2011 13:14 GMT
Author: (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2011. Click For Restrictions. http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp
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* Call comes after worst healthcare scandal in years

* Sarkozy says to make full overhaul of medicine policy

By Brian Love

PARIS, Jan 20 (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged on Thursday to shake up the healthcare system and root out fraud after a report said a drug suspected of killing more than 500 people should have been pulled years before it was.

His government faces France's worst health scandal in years and has ordered checks on dozens of medicines after the damning report on a weight-control pill used by five million people before it was withdrawn in 2009. [ID:nLDE70F0CN]

"I understand the anger of my fellow citizens and victims," Sarkozy said in a speech to healthcare professionals. "We must learn the lessons from this case. We are going to undertake a full-scale overhaul of our medicines policy."

Behind his promises is a furore over the Mediator drug prescribed to diabetics and dieters over more than three decades and withdrawn in late 2009, years after it was pulled in Italy and Spain.

Officially endorsed estimates link the medicine to the death of upwards of 500 people from heart valve trouble, and hundreds of people are now taking court action.

Maxime Grametz, a communist member of parliament who says he took Mediator for 15 years, said this week he was planning legal action and had filed a complaint against the company, Servier, that made the drug.

State inspectors said in a report published on Saturday that Mediator should have been removed at least a decade before it was ordered off the market, faulting Servier but also the public health agency for not acting faster to do so.

It was withdrawn after publication by a public health agency of estimates by medical experts that at least 500 people died due to exposure to its active ingredient, a molecule called benfluorex. Servier says the estimates do not reflect historical safety reports and stuck to that line when the latest report on the matter came out on Saturday. But Servier has said it is willing to look into the matter with the authorities.

Doubts about Mediator's efficacy emerged in the late 1990s, shortly after another diet drug, made by the same company and based on a related molecule, was banned on safety grounds -- primarily heart valve trouble.

PUBLIC SPENDING CONTROL TO STAY

Servier, which made sales of 3.7 billion euros in its last financial year, is run by founder Jacques Servier, 88, who was awarded France's national merit medal, the Legion d'Honneur, by Sarkozy less than a year before the drug was pulled.

Sarkozy said the healthcare system needed to be overhauled but also that public expenditure would have to be contained in a year when government debt-control was also vital.

"We must defend the healthcare system because it's one of the best in the world," he said.

Gerard Bapt, heading a parliamentary fact-finding mission into the Mediator scandal, told Reuters last week that the drug -- covered by the national social security system -- likely cost the state around 2 billion euros (${esc.dollar}2.7 billion) over the year.

That kind of money would be far better spent beefing up the public agency in charge of vetting safety and giving drugs marketing permits in France, he said, referring to an agency whose boss has said he will quit as a result of the affair.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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