Hundreds of clinics in KwaZulu-Natal have been relying on temporary measures to ensure patients’ blood samples were not left lying uncollected and untested.
This occurred after the National Health Laboratory Service suspended its courier service that transports the blood samples from clinics in KZN to its laboratories.
According to the service, R3 billion in unpaid bills from the KZN Health Department had put such strain on its budget that it had no alternative.
However, the department is disputing the sum and has called the suspension of the courier service “inappropriate” and “insensitive”.
The tussle over payment is a long-standing saga in which national Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has had to intervene and which resulted in the service shutting down its laboratories in KZN two years ago.
The laboratory service provides all diagnostic tests for public health facilities, including screening for HIV and TB.
While the Gauteng Health Department has an unpaid bill of R900 million, it has made payment arrangements.
On Monday, nurses at clinics in Newcastle and KwaMashu confirmed that patient blood samples had not been collected since last week, but said temporary measures had been implemented.
The blood samples from one clinic were collected by staff from a nearby hospital, as the head of the KZN Health Department, Dr Sibongile Zungu, had instructed.
For now, the laboratory service has not suspended the courier service between hospitals and its laboratories.
But should the impasse not be resolved urgently, the service would affect the collection of blood and tissue specimens from hospitals as well.
On Monday, Zungu said she was relying on the national Health Department to provide direction on what needed to be done.
Despite the situation in KZN, the spokesman for the national Health Department, Joe Maila, was adamant that, as far as it was concerned, no services had been suspended.
Maila said his department would not allow things to deteriorate to that point, and it was intervening because the matter “must be resolved” but would not say how the payment dispute was being dealt with.