JERUSALEM The finance ministry here, siding with Israel¿s largest HMO, Kupat Holim Clalit, wants to open the drug market to foreign imports by the health fund. Such parallel imports would cut medicine prices 20 percent to 60 percent and save the public tens of millions of shekels a year (at about four shekels per U.S. dollar), said the ministry spokesman.

However, the ministry warned in a special caveat, ¿free¿ import of drugs does not mean ¿uncontrolled.¿ A statement from the ministry said all drugs ¿will still be subject to tight supervision by the health ministry.¿

Health Ministry Director-General Gabi Barabash responded to recommendations from the finance ministry and evidence presented by Clalit, granting special permission to the health fund to sign parallel import agreements. HMO director Yitzhak Peterburg said Clalit had complained that, because of a price and payment dispute with Agis Pharmaceuticals Ltd., its supply of some approved drugs essential to chronic treatment (such as betaferon for multiple sclerosis) were interrupted by Agis, the sole licensed importer of these drugs.

Kupat Holim Clalit said it had signed more than 20 import agreements last week to independently import medications at prices up to 77 percent lower than Agis. The HMO signed agreements with pharmaceutical companies in Britain, France, Germany and Holland to import the same medications that were being brought to Israel by Agis.

The products include Zavedos (an oncology drug), at 22 percent less than is charged by Agis; Estracyt (estramustine phosphate, used to treat prostate cancer), at 48 percent less; Dalacin (an antibiotic prescribed for gastric system infections and anaerobic bacterial conditions), at 24 percent less; and Ritopar (to avert premature delivery), at 77 percent less.

Osmoadalat (used to treat hypertension, with an extended-release mechanism to prevent sudden and disastrous blood-pressure changes) also was granted a special import license, at a 160 percent lower price than Agis is being paid. Osmoadalat, normally imported from Germany, makes up the most significant financial part of Agis¿ dealings with the HMO. n