Pfizer "Bribe" Scandal in Philippines Heats Up; Company Offered Posters to the President

Last Updated Jul 15, 2009 11:08 AM EDT

An allegation that Pfizer attempted to "bribe" the government of the Philippines with 5 million discount cards to get a price control law postponed has developed into a full-blown scandal in the archipelago nation. Pfizer denies there was an attempt to bribe anyone, and yesterday described the allegations as "absurd." BNET first noted the allegations here.

Pfizer executives did not turn up to an inquiry on the delay of the implementation of the maximum retail price law Monday, per GMA News.

Representatives of Pfizer Philippines also failed to attend the hearing. In a letter to the committee, Patricia Pascual, Pfizer's public relations officer, said their officials have prior out-of-town appointments that cannot be rescheduled.

She apologized for "Pfizer's unavoidable absence in this public hearing."

Pfizer admitted in a statement that it had made an offer of 5 million discount cards on its medicines, but said that offer came before the list of drugs affected by the MRP pricing law emerged:
In our desire to have more Filipinos benefit from Pfizer's high-quality medicines and patient care program, we have volunteered to partner with the Department of Health to offer Sulit cards to 5 million more patients in national and local government hospitals and community health centers by the end of the year.

These discussions began in May 2009, prior to the announcement of the list of products subject to Maximum Retail Price. We are saddened that our sincere desire to help has been misconstrued as bribery.

Pfizer also admitted that it had offered to create some promotional posters featuring President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and the health secretary:
"Pfizer proposed to use DOH's own tag line 'To-DOH Kalusugan' to allow for the participation of other stakeholders who would want to participate in any way in DOH's efforts to expand its health programs for underserved Filipinos. It is for this reason that these posters include the photo of Sec. Francisco Duque as the head of the sponsoring government agency, and as is usual for DOH's programs, with the photo of the President likewise included," the statement added.
You can read more about the posters here. And some details emerged about who, exactly, was at the alleged meeting between Pfizer and the government.
[Reiner Gloor, executive director of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP)] said at the bicameral hearing Monday that the meeting was arranged by Albert Mateo Jr, president and country manager of Pfizer Philippines. Other attendees in the meeting were representatives from Roche, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi.

He claimed that the meeting centered on the proposed executive order on MRP and if it was possible to have alternatives to it.

... Prior to the announcement on the list of essential medicines that would subjected to MRP, the Pfizer offered to donate to the government five million discount cards (sulit card) but this was rejected by Secretary Duque. It was not clear why the company made the offer, Gloor said.

Among the folks declining to respond to the inquiry Monday:
[Senator Manuel Roxas II] earlier said the bicameral Quality Affordable Medicines Oversight Committee has invited President Arroyo and her aides to shed light on reports that she met with officials of a multi-national drug company and agreed to defer the signing of a proposed executive order setting limits on the prices of 22 essential medicines.
Also invited to the hearing were Albert Mateo Jr., Pfizer president and country manager; Mao Navoa, customer relations and Sulit Card director; lawyer Milette Asuncion, director for public affairs and legal services; and lawyer Tinine Bautista, corporate legal counsel.
BNET's take: What's going on here is political, with Filipino politicians clearly eager to make the most of the government's missteps, so we should take these allegations with a pinch of salt.

Having said that, if Pfizer did make the discount card offer, and the offer of free posters for the president (political posters are a heavily used election tool in foreign countries); and if it emerged those offers were contingent upon delaying or cancelling the MRP, then Pfizer could be in real trouble.