Croatia arrests pharma staff, doctors in bribery case

ZAGREB Mon Nov 12, 2012 10:58am EST

ZAGREB Nov 12 (Reuters) - Croatia's anti-corruption police have arrested the management of a local pharmaceutical firm and dozens of doctors on suspicion of bribery over the prescription of medicines, officials said on Monday.

The former Yugoslav republic is scheduled to join the European Union next July but its efforts to fight widespread corruption and organised crime will be closely monitored in Brussels and other EU capitals before then.

The USKOK anti-graft agency said police were investigating 26 employees of a pharmaceutical company, 49 doctors and one pharmacist suspected of bribery.

Health Minister Rajko Ostojic said the actual number of those involved in illegal payments could be much higher, with 350 doctors under suspicion of taking bribes.

"We can expect further arrests," he told a news conference. "The fight against corruption is in our crucial interest in all segments of society."

Government officials did not name the company involved.

The USKOK operation, code-named Hippocratus, is the latest example of action against corruption in pharmaceutical prescribing practices in eastern Europe and other emerging markets.

In Serbia, the suicide of one of the country's top cancer specialists in January pointed up a web of alleged bribery by leading drugmakers trying push their products by paying doctors to prescribe them.

Around the world, the issue of pharmaceutical industry corruption has been in the spotlight, with Pfizer, the world's biggest drug company, agreeing in August to pay $60 million to settle charges that it bribed its way across emerging markets.

This and similar settlements by Johnson & Johnson and medical devices firm Smith & Nephew are part of a broad crackdown on bribery by multinationals in foreign countries that has hit several of the world's top drugmakers.

Internationally, the pharmaceutical industry's main trade body has tightened its code of practice in a bid to stamp out corruption.

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