Pharmacists across Armenia could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief on March 1, after days of long lines and last-minute buying before new rules that changed many common over-the-counter drugs to prescription-only took effect.
Many Armenians, especially the elderly, had lined up for hours across the country in the waning days of February to hoard some of the 2,700 drugs that were put out of reach without a doctor's signature.
The government says the move will shield people from the danger of self-medicating.
But for many of the country's 3 million citizens, having to go to a doctor's office to get permission to take medicines they've been buying freely for years is proving a bitter pill to swallow.
“This is just another stupid law,” says one woman who lined up for medicine in the capital, Yerevan.
“Seeing a doctor in our reality is connected with expenses and our people, as you see, certainly have financial problems. The superfluous lines, the whole rush, additional expenses, even at polyclinics that are supposed to be free-of-charge.... This surely will not work in our country,” she added.
The Health Ministry’s February 19 announcement of the move immediately sparked confusion that helped lead to the rush. Many people were unsure which of the roughly 4,700 drugs available in the country would be put on the list.
The ministry has since clarified the process, with antibiotics, hormonal medications, and codeine-containing drugs falling under the new rules. A compulsory-prescription system for intravenous and anticancer drugs will take force from July 1.
“Any changes to regulations cause certain discomfort. Physiological discomfort causes, first of all, dissatisfaction, and later, when people see changes are actually positive, comes satisfaction,” Health Minister Levon Altunyan told reporters on March 1.
“Today, we have the first stage of reaction to the change. I am sure there will also be a second, more positive phase,” he added.
Health Ministry officials have stressed that regular medicines such as aspirin and other similar painkillers will not be affected by the new regulations.
But the explanations have failed to quell fears among many that the pills they stock their medicine cabinets at home with won’t be available when they need them in a mountainous and rugged country frequently faced with shortages.
“I thought I could buy a few drugs that still have a long time to go before expiry so as to send them to my sister, who lives in the mountains. If there is a heavy snow, she can't go to a polyclinic for a prescription,” a woman waiting in a line explained.
Armenians are sensitive to any regulatory change and accuse the government of corruption and mishandling an economy that has struggled to overcome the legacy of central planning since the country seceded from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Curbing access to medicines and a perceived failure to explain it to the public appear to have added to the animosity toward the move.
“Everyone's asking what's going to happen. No one is aware [of the details],” said one pharmacist in Yerevan.
“I have no idea how we it will work.... We don’t know what these prescriptions will be like, whether people will go to doctors or not,” she added.