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South Africa’s national laboratory agency is digging in its heels over a R3 billion payment dispute with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health and did not pick up blood or tissue samples from 700 clinics across the province on Monday.
This is despite a warning from Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi this week that he would not accept any disruption to health services.
Officials from the provincial department and the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) were locked in discussions on Monday in an effort to resolve the impasse.
The NHLS suspended its logistics services to 710 KZN clinics last week after the department failed to respond to a demand for an outstanding R3bn debt.
This means that no blood or tissue samples taken from sick patients will be collected by NHLS couriers for testing at its laboratories.
The suspension would be extended to 20 community health centres, 37 district hospitals, 13 regional hospitals, three tertiary hospitals and a national hospital over the next six weeks if the payment was not made by then, the agency warned.
The KZN health department denied it owed the NHLS the money.
NHLS spokeswoman, Kaamini Reddy, said on Monday that logistics services to KZN clinics were still suspended. however, they were in negotiations with the health department.
“Because of this we will no longer be engaging the media,” she said.
Department of Health spokesman, Joe Maila, said that it was up to KZN department and the NHLS to sort out their dispute.
“However, our position remains the same. We do not want any disruption in services,” he said.
KZN Health’s head of department, Dr Sibongile Zungu, could not be reached for comment.
Last Wednesday, the NHLS wrote to the heads of the KZN and Gauteng health departments warning them of their plans to suspend logistical services unless payment arrangements were made.
Gauteng, which allegedly owed the agency R900 million, made a firm commitment to pay the outstanding debt and services from the NHLS continued.
The suspension of services threatens the jobs of 1 300 KZN laboratory staff and thousands of small, independent courier contractors.