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Mar 30, 2010

Bulgaria health minister charged with graft

SOFIA, March 30 (Reuters) – Bulgarian prosecutors charged
Health Minister Bozhidar Nanev with graft in connection with flu
vaccine contracts on Tuesday, a new step in the country’s drive
to clean up its image as the most corrupt European Union nation.

Prosecutors said Nanev caused 2.45 million levs ($1.67
million) of damage by signing two contracts last December with
Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG <ROG.VX> for the delivery of
the influenza drug Tamiflu.

Feb 10, 2010

Bulgaria repeats no GMO pledge, public unconvinced

SOFIA, Feb 10 (Reuters) – Bulgaria’s farm minister reassured worried people on Wednesday that the government would not allow genetically modified (GM) food in shops but stopped short of saying whether Sofia would declare the Balkan country GM-free. Miroslav Naidenov told Reuters in an interview a five-year moratorium on cultivation of GM crops drafted by his ruling centre-right GERB party last week should be enough to soothe public fears provoked by new legislation.

But non-government organisations, farmers and citizens, who have rallied against GM crops in the past weeks, said in a statement the proposed moratorium was "a political PR and manipulation" aimed at bypassing public concerns.

They said they would stage a demonstration in front of parliament on Thursday to press deputies not to replace a ban on GM crop cultivation with a licensing regime.

The changes that sparked public fears envisage lifting a ban on growing GM crops for scientific and commercial reasons in the environment but the cultivation of such crops would only be possible with the authorisation of a special committee.

The new government, elected last July, has said the legal changes, approved by parliament at first reading, were aimed at complying with the EU laws and should be adopted along with the moratorium.

"The cultivation of such crops and their use to make food for people, which is now scaring the society, has never been an object of consideration," Naidenov said.

"This (moratorium) is a commitment of the ruling majority for five years, so far we have kept our promises and people must calm down. There are much more serious things (to worry about)."


Authorising GMOs for consumption, processing or cultivation in Europe is a politically charged subject with many openly hostile to what they call "Frankestein foods."

In Bulgaria, green groups, organic farmers and a number of political parties, including some of GERB’s rightist allies in parliament, say Sofia must not liberalise its GMO legislation and give in to pressure from biotech and other industries.

The government has said it has not received any requests for cultivation of GM crops and denies any corporate pressure.

Critics argue GMOs threaten biodiversity, could contaminate conventional crops, and also pose a health risk.

Naidenov said as a consumer and parent he had "big concerns" about GMO food but added he was ready to listen to arguments of the biotech industry, too.

"For the time being, we…must not raise the issue at all and it is unacceptable to offer GMO food to people and GMO food to the Bulgarian market," he said.

"At the same time I want…to hear the opinion of the other side. We cannot stop science and development. I do not accept calls to also stop experiments in laboratories."

Green groups have called on the government to support organic farming instead. But Naidenov said the government could not afford to set aside money in times of deepening recession for a sector that was unlikely to help raise competitiveness.

"It it is very important not to get carried away by fashion. Every lev must go for conventional farming in times of crisis particularly when we have huge reserves of unused potential." (Editing by James Jukwey)

Feb 4, 2010

Bulgaria looks to privatise hospitals after reform

SOFIA, Feb 4 (Reuters) – The Bulgarian government is likely to begin a privatisation programme of its state hospitals this year, once an overhaul of the indebted and inefficient sector is complete, Health Minister Bozhidar Nanev said on Thursday.

He told Reuters in an interview that investor interest would rise once the Balkan country had put in place a better funding structure for hospitals, with extra money likely to come from people paying more into both public and private health funds.

Moves by the centre-right government, elected last July, to close down 21 state-run communist-era hospitals and to raise contribution levels have triggered protests in towns across the Balkan country.

Crowds including doctors and nurses have demonstrated, saying while reforms were badly needed they feared thousands of people living in remoter areas could be left without access to hospital treatment. [ID:nLDE6100UU]

Another 130 hospitals will also be shut or converted to smaller centres, as part of the government’s plan, which Nanev said would be carried out, despite public opposition.

"Privatisation is the way to go," Nanev, 47, a former surgeon said. "There must be privatisation of both hospitals and the services provided by hospitals".

Most of Bulgaria’s 350 hospitals are state-owned, of which 71 were on a list of assets banned for privatisation. Nanev said this could be changed through legal amendments once the government had a clear strategy on sell-offs.

He said the reforms needed to show results so as to showcase the investment potential to investors.

Years of post-communist neglect and lack of political will for reforms have left many hospitals understaffed, heavily indebted, lacking contemporary equipment and even medicines.

Corruption in the sector is widespread and paying bribes to doctors for services due to be covered by insurances is the norm. Opinion polls show Bulgarians are the most dissatisfied with their healthcare system in of the 27-member European Union.

To secure money for the planned reforms, Sofia is considering obliging Bulgarians to pay extra private health insurance and to raise by 2 percentage points to 10 percent of gross income, payments to state health funds as of 2011. An existing voluntary scheme to contribute to private funds has failed to work.

The ministry was also working on a new methods of calculating prices of medical services to reflect the market reality, he said.

"Reforms needs money. We cannot make reforms by saving money, this must be clear," Nanev said but did not give figures.

The budget of the state health fund for hospitals fell 24 percent to 709 million levs ($503.2 million) in 2010, data showed. Hospitals’ debt stood at some 350 million levs by end-November last year.

The poorest EU country cut total health spending this year by 350 million levs to 2.25 billion, or some 4.2 percent of GDP, nearly halve the proportion spent in many Western nations. (Editing by Matthew Jones)

Feb 1, 2010

Doctors rally over hospitals closure in Bulgaria

SOFIA, Feb 1 (Reuters) – Doctors, nurses and citizens in Bulgaria rallied and blocked a road on Monday to protest against a planned closure of hospitals and cuts in state subsidies as part of a healthcare reform.

The new centre-right government, elected last July, will shut 21 communist-era state hospitals this month due to a lack of specialists, equipment and money. Another 130 hospitals would also be closed down or converted to smaller medical centres.

The government, pressured by falling budget revenues in times of deepening recession, says the Balkan country needed less but more modern hospitals with high quality services.

Doctors, nurses and people in the affected regions disagree, saying the reform would leave thousands in remote place without access to hospital treatment as many could not afford to travel to the cities.

Some 400 hospital staff and people in Gotse Delchev temporarily blocked a roundabout in the southwestern town, while doctors and nurses staged a walkout in the northern town of Novi Pazar. Hundreds of people joined their protest.

"The reform is implemented without a clear strategy of the consequences, without funding and public debate and support," said Maria Radoikova, head of the Gotse Delchev hospital.

"Our budget has been slashed by 60 percent. It makes it impossible to function normally, we cannot pay wages, buy medicines and treat patients."

More rallies across the country of 7.6 million are planned this week and people threaten to block highways.

Bulgaria, the poorest European Union nation, has reduced spending on healthcare by 500 million levs to 2.6 billion levs or about 4.2 percent of GDP this year, almost half the amount of money spent in richer West European countries.

The health ministry says it will equip primary care departments in the hospitals due to be closed this month.

Sofia has also tightened coverage rules and as a result 380,000 people lost their healthcare rights over failing to pay three monthly insurance instalments for the past three years.

The budget of the government’s National Health Insurance Fund is under strain by rising drug and hospital costs and ageing population.

The country also suffers a shortage of doctors and nurses as many left in the past 20 years lured by higher pay abroad.

The government has also pledged to push ahead with overdue overhaul of education and the pension system. Rising unemployment and painful reforms are likely to erode its strong popularity ratings, pollsters say. (Reporting by Anna Mudeva and Irina Ivanova; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Jan 26, 2010

CME in talks to buy News Corp Bulgarian bTV: source

SOFIA (Reuters) – Television group Central European Media Enterprises (CME) <CETV.O> <CETVsp.PR> is close to signing a deal to buy News Corp’s <NWSA.O> Bulgarian broadcaster bTV for about 500 million euros ($704.5 million), a source familiar with the matter said.

The Sofia-based source, who is close to the talks, told Reuters on Tuesday the deal for the whole of bTV was likely to be announced in the weeks after February 1.

Dec 23, 2009

Festive fare for hard times? Bottle it

ORESHAK, Bulgaria (Reuters) – In a dimly lit cellar festooned with cobwebs, Sando and Lilyana keep enough home-made food provisions to survive whatever may befall their mountain village, be it recession or cold.

Regardless of living standards and social status, there is hardly a Bulgarian family which does not store at least a jar of home-made pickles, personal favorites with late communist dictator Todor Zhivkov and present Prime Minister Boiko Borisov.