Durban - The budget-stretched provincial health department has, over the past three years, spent more than R179 million settling legal claims emanating from staff negligence and internal labour-related grievances.

At the same time, the department paid private attorneys R15.7m to fight those lawsuits. It told the health portfolio committee at the legislature in Pietermaritzburg at a meeting last week it had 1 520 pending cases dating to 2004, amounting to R3.9 billion.

According to a report presented to the committee, between 2011 and February this year, there had been an alarming growth in legal action, some of which the department had settled at the cost of R179.9 million.

In the past financial year the department paid R77.5m in settlements, while in 2012/13 it paid R56.8m and R34.8m in 2011/12.

Records indicate it had more than 900 legal claims totalling more than R3.5bn between 2011 and last month.

The claims were:

- Medical – 673;

- Accidents involving department vehicles – 435;

- Civil claims – 301;

- Labour claims – 111

The department has struggled financially to sustain its healthcare facilities.

This week the The National Health Laboratory Service accused it of not paying its bill (which a source claimed was R3 billion) and suspended its courier service to public clinics.

The department’s acting general manager for legal service Prash Padayachee told the committee that part of the problem was that lawyers were going all out to make a profit from government departments.

“That has a lot to do with how people are exercising their rights, and how the legal industry is operating currently.

“Lawyers would go out asking patients how they had been treated by the hospitals and promise to assist them with lawsuits,” she said.

Besides acting as head of the challenged legal service, Padayachee, whose permanent position is general manager for executive support, is also acting general manager for human resource management services.

She said lengthy legal processes, which were beyond the department’s control, had led to the initial cost of lawsuits tripling by the end of the case.

To remedy the situation, the department was looking at the existing legislation to create policies that would make employees accountable for their negligence.

Workshops were also being conducted to alert clinical staff of the consequences of negligence.

She said the department’s drivers would have to take responsibily for causing accidents that led to third party claims.

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The Mercury