Hepatitis C settlement talks dealt blow

Health ministry rejects uniform compensation for all in drug disaster

Compiled From Kyodo, Staff Reports

A proposal from hepatitis C sufferers that the state pay uniform compensation to all people who contracted the disease through tainted blood products was rejected Thursday by Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Yoichi Masuzoe, leaving their out-of-court settlement talks near collapse.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda indicated that there is still room for flexibility in the government’s position, saying he did not think the talks are yet over.

It is estimated that some 10,000 people in Japan were infected with the disease via tainted blood products, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had banned the products in 1977 due to their risks.

Masuzoe said the government will instead agree to a settlement framework compiled last week by the Osaka High Court and pay a total of ¥14 billion to eligible sufferers. The framework limits the scope of liability of the defendants — the state and drugmakers.

Adding further relief measures to the court plan, Masuzoe proposed that the government pay a total of ¥3 billion to sufferers who are not eligible under the court-crafted plan.

But the plaintiffs and their lawyers rejected the government’s proposal and expressed their intention to abandon the negotiations.

Should the high court present another settlement closer to the government’s new relief measures, they will officially end the negotiations, the lawyers said.

“It is like slapping our faces with bundles of bills,” Toshihiro Suzuki, a representative of the plaintiffs’ lawyers said in ruling out any possibility of negotiations based on the government’s plan.

In the evening, Fukuda said, “There are no words to express my apology when I think of the long-term hardships (the victims) went through.”

Although he said health minister Masuzoe did his best to find a solution that would meet the plaintiff’s demands, Fukuda added, “I don’t think everything is over.”

He expressed hope that the Osaka High Court can continue discussing the settlement with the plaintiffs, adding that the government is “willing to be flexible” depending on the further decision made by the court.

Earlier in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura said, “We set out the best possible proposal we can come up with at the present, although I am not sure if the plan can be accepted.”

While expressing regret that the government had allowed another incident to occur in which tainted drugs caused suffering, Machimura said, “The government cannot reach a settlement that would contradict the court settlement framework.”

Based on a March 2007 Tokyo District Court decision, the Osaka High Court urged the defendants to pay ¥12 million to ¥40 million in compensation to sufferers who were administered with tainted blood products for a certain period of time and developed certain diseases.

The plaintiffs refused to accept the court settlement plan and demanded Wednesday that the government and drugmakers pay an average of ¥15 million in compensation to “all” patients and that the amount should vary depending on their suffering.

Masuzoe stressed that the compensation will be paid to about 200 plaintiffs and 800 sufferers who are not in any lawsuits. “It is virtually compensating all sufferers, directly or indirectly,” he said.

The defendants in the suits are the state, Mitsubishi Tanabe Pharma Corp., its subsidiary, Benesis Corp., and Nihon Pharmaceutical Co.

Mitsubishi Tanabe is the successor to now-defunct blood product maker Green Cross Corp., which made the tainted fibrinogen that caused a large number of people to contract hepatitis C.

The suits were filed by people who contracted hepatitis C after being administered the drugs from around 1970 to the early 1990s to stop bleeding while undergoing operations or having babies.

Some 200 hepatitis C sufferers are currently involved in five lawsuits filed in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Sendai, but it is believed more than 10,000 people were treated with tainted fibrinogen.