30 medical labs forced to close

By Colleen Dardagan Time of article published Feb 7, 2012

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Thirty medical laboratories in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are expected to close today as the provincial governments renege on R1.7 billion in health bills.

This could result in critically ill patients going untreated as doctors and specialists delay prescribing medication because of blood test backlogs at consolidated facilities.

National Health Laboratory Services head Sagie Pillay said 15 laboratories each in KZN and Gauteng would close their doors as the service tried to stay in business.

“We are consolidating our services in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal because of an outstanding R1.7bn owed to us by the provincial departments of health. R1.1bn of that is owed to us by KwaZulu-Natal. We owe our creditors R750 million,” he said.

Pillay said diagnosing illnesses through blood tests would now take time.

KZN Health Department spokesman Chris Maxon said that a meeting was scheduled for Thursday when the government and the service would thrash out the problems.

“There is a dispute over how much they say we owe them, and they are telling us that they are closing labs as a cost-saving exercise. However, they have never said they are closing because of the money we owe them.

“The premier, Zweli Mkhize, and the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, will meet on Thursday with the provincial health ministers and NHLS to establish what is really happening. We want to assure the public that services will not be compromised,” he said.

Pillay said some suppliers to the service had closed down as they were unable to borrow more money, while others had halted supplies to the service.

He said Gordhan had approved an increased overdraft for the agency, but “we are now waiting for the banks” (to implement the overdraft).

Senior medical staff at some of the affected laboratories, who asked for anonymity, said patients would be the worst affected by the closures.

“One laboratory alone can process 37 000 blood samples a month. These tests include TB and HIV/Aids, and those are just a few.”

The staff said emergency, paediatric and labour wards would be particularly badly affected.

Patients could still go to hospitals for treatment, but there a 24-hour laboratory service would not be available.

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