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The president and his coronavirus czar. The president and the deputy health minister.

Health agency could come under Health Ministry and coronavirus czar

Proposal criticized for taking away health regulator's autonomy

The responsibilities of Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell, the government’s chief coronavirus strategist, could soon be significantly broader.

Under a Health Ministry proposal, the Federal Commission for Protection Against Health Risks (Cofepris) – Mexico’s most important health sector regulatory body – and 12 other health agencies including the National Addictions Commission and the National Blood Transfusion Center will come under the control of the department headed up by López-Gatell.

The coronavirus point man, a Johns Hopkins University-trained epidemiologist, is the head of the Health Ministry’s department of prevention and health promotion.

However, it does not yet appear to be an entirely done deal that López-Gatell will take the reins of Cofepris, which is responsible for approving the use and consumption of medications, food, beverages, dietary supplements and pesticides among other duties.

The newspaper Reforma reported that there is opposition within the federal government to the Health Ministry’s proposal, which has been sent to the National Commission for Regulatory Improvement for approval.

The newspaper said it saw an internal government document that was critical of the proposal, pointing out that regulatory bodies similar to Cofepris in countries such as Argentina, Brazil and Colombia are decentralized, independent organizations.

The document, whose exact origin was not divulged, said that if Cofepris came under Health Ministry control, the risk of mismanagement and conflicts of interest in its daily operations would increase.

The regulator’s transparency, confidentiality, independence and impartiality could all be adversely affected, the government document said.

It warned that international bodies such as the World Health Organization could downgrade their rating of Cofepris if it were to be subjugated to Health Ministry control.

The document also said that international “collaboration and authorization schemes” could be adversely affected because Mexico’s importation and exportation of medicines, food and other products that could pose health risks must comply with strict quality and hygiene controls. The implication is that those controls could be compromised if Cofepris is not completely autonomous.

There is also opposition to the Health Ministry’s proposal from several opposition party lawmakers.

Martha Tagle, a federal deputy with the Citizens Movement Party, said that Cofepris’ independence is guaranteed by law and therefore its status cannot be changed via an “internal Health Ministry agreement.”

Reforma reported that Institutional Revolutionary Party deputies Ana Lilia Herrera Anzaldo and Frinné Azuara Yarzábal intended to oppose the Health Ministry proposal on the floor of the Congress.

National Action Party (PAN) Senator Martha Márquez said that the move to put the regulator under the control of López-Gatell was yet another attack on the autonomy of independent government bodies.

Josefina Salazar, a PAN deputy, made her thoughts clear on the Health Ministry proposal in a Twitter post.

“In a move of doubtful legality, they want to turn Hugo López-Gatell into a ‘super deputy minister,’ causing some entities … such as Cofepris to lose autonomy. [It would give] more power to the official responsible for the disastrous management of the pandemic in Mexico,” she wrote.

Fernando Belaunzarán, a deputy with the Democratic Revolution Party, described the plan as a “great gift” to the deputy minister but added that the move would have “grave consequences.”

In an ironic tone, he wrote on Twitter that the coronavirus czar should be given a cake with 60,000 candles because Mexico has almost recorded that number of Covid-19 deaths while López-Gatell has been in charge of the pandemic response.

Miguel Ángel Toscano, a former Cofepris chief, said it would be a “disaster” and “a backward step” to subordinate the regulator to the deputy minister’s department.

“It’s criminal ignorance, … I regret the absurd decision to say the least. While the [rest of the] world strengthens their health authorities, in Mexico they are undermined [and] overpowered. They’re bound to political decisions, not technical ones.”

Source: Reforma (sp) 

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