José D Zuniga, head of legal, compliance, regulatory affairs and asset protection, Cuestamoras Salud

Workloads for in-house counsel within pharmaceutical companies have exploded in recent times. José D Zuniga, head of legal, compliance, regulatory affairs and asset protection at Cuestamoras Salud shares how he has been navigating recent regulatory changes in Costa Rica.

Cuestamoras Salud is a pharmaceutical distribution company. We have a portfolio of distribution assets that not only cover pharmacy, but also medical equipment. We serve the two biggest markets in Costa Rica: the public market – which consists of hospitals, clinics and the whole public health sector – and the private sector, which also includes hospitals, clinics and pharmacy outlets. I have legal oversight for compliance functions, regulatory affairs and value protection (formally known as asset protection).

Since COVID-19 our workload has increased significantly, especially in the areas of regulatory compliance, contracts, customs and public health bidding. Public health bidding has been a huge area for us, and in recent times it has obviously increased. The pharmacy and health sector have to buy products from the market, during a time when everybody is trying to buy the same products. This has been a really big challenge for us.

However, the biggest challenge in the last few months has been uncertainty. This is a fairly new disease and there is little known statistically and scientifically about the virus. So there are a lot of questions to consider, in terms of how to act and how to react. I believe keeping calm during this time can be just as contagious as the virus.  You need to make a proper assessment of all the information you have at hand and try to keep focused on goals. Our goals are keeping our employees safe, whilst continuing business operations.

One of our biggest regulatory hurdles has been getting the government to approve private testing. At first, health authorities in Costa Rica said no because they wanted to be in control of confirming who is a COVID patient and who is not. In order to get private testing approved we had to do some lobbying. We pressed the government with evidence of what had been happening Europe – in places such as Spain and Italy – to show that you need the private sector to help minimize and contain the spread of the virus alongside public officials.

Finally, authorities permitted private testing, providing the private sector with the tools to determine at an early stage who may be sick and who is not. From that we could determine who might need to be isolated. There was a business continuity incentive here, but it also had a public health component. It allowed us to stop and isolate a person, and ultimately minimise the spread of the virus within our warehouses.

With this we have moved forward on our proactive testing. This does not mean we are going to be testing everyone: we cannot test all 1900 of our personal. Instead we used statistical analysis and assessed the risk factor of employees. Data on where they live and how they travel to work were used to profile everyone in the company. This was done by experts in virology and statistical analysis. We had a separate team determining who was going to be tested based on their risk factor and exposure. In the end we did both reactive testing and proactive testing. Proactive testing is testing people who, though not showing systems may have a higher epidemiological risk. We have had proven results through this method.

From a legal standpoint, this testing involved a lot of negotiations. We had to negotiate with the service provider and our employees. The testing program was voluntary and as a result required consent from individuals. We also had to manage privacy issues surrounding access to and handling of employees’ private medical information.

Nevertheless, we obviously have inter-regulatory obligations with the government. When we determine through private testing that someone is positive with COVID, we need to inform the health authorities immediately. There is a lot going on.

Uplifting our digital capabilities on all fronts of the business has also been key. We have had to enhance our processes, and are currently going through a digital transformation right now. COVID has confirmed to us that this is the right way to go. We started the project at the end of the third quarter last year, but recent events made us move faster in order to take advantage of that opportunity.

The changing role of the workplace is also another area that needs to be defined. It is important to comply with a new normal. Working from home has shown there has been no impact on productivity in terms of results. If you are going to open your central offices, they have to serve a different purpose than what you are doing at home. The workplace has to become a beacon of corporate culture. That means developing and enforcing culture, so that people feel compelled to go to work.

We also need to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration spaces, whilst keeping in mind all the regulations in terms of interactions. This is especially important when talking about innovation. We need to be able to provide space for creative opportunities, for the conversations you have with fellow colleagues in the hallways. Those spontaneous conversations that generate interesting ideas may be important for the company. That is one of the biggest burdens about working from home, you do not have those spontaneous opportunities to discuss anything with anyone else. Innovation does not happen when you plan it to happen. Going forward this is one of the things we are trying to deal with. We are working and trying to design what our idea of ‘offices of the future’ will be. This has enormous legal implications all-round.

Part of managing a crisis is providing emotional support to employees, and this has been a top priority. We set up a program within which our human resource team followed up with employees. This entailed picking up the phone and speaking to each and every member of staff who was working from home. It was important as a company to hear their worries and hear their concerns. Accordingly, we developed a program to address all the challenging aspects of working from home, from creating a proper physical space to task programming, organisation and leadership skills. By doing this we found our employees were more motivated. This is how we have managed to stay focused and deliver results.

Our mission is to keep access and supply of medications open for all. This is a goal that motivates our teams, because they understand the importance of what they are doing. Considering all challenges we have experienced during this pandemic, we have managed to maintain company results because of the effectiveness and productivity of our people.