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Johannesburg - The crisis at the Gauteng Health Department deepens by the day as unpaid suppliers withhold services and legal claims mount, with services paralysed because bank accounts have been attached and phone lines suspended.

The department - described as the worst managed in the country - is facing massive financial problems and, if not handled quickly, will soon be impacting on essential health services.

And as the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings proceed, there is a possibility that the department’s financial problems will deepen if retired judge Dikgang Moseneke rules that the families of the 141 psychiatric patients who died as a result of government action should be financially compensated.

More than two months ago (on August 20), the Nurse Mate Agency that provides nursing services to public and private hospitals withdrew all their nurses from Rahima Moosa Hospital. They say they are owed about R3.6million and want assurances that this will be paid before they will resume duty.

“We have withdrawn our nurses pending formal confirmation that Rahima Moosa Hospital or the department will be able to pay, and specifically when that payment can be expected,” Paul Biyase, the manager of Nurse Mate Agency, said.

Read: #LifeEsidimeni: Official confesses to negligence

Biyase said although the amount they were owed was R3.6m, “if we add all arrears invoices - some dating back to August 2016 - that have not been processed, because the Gauteng Health Department is delaying things, the total figure is above R5m”.

Biyase said while Rahima Moosa Hospital was anxious to clear the debt, the department had no money available and was busy applying for funding from the Treasury.

“They (Gauteng Health Department) ignore all enquiries and are very insensitive. The hospital can’t say when we’ll be paid,” Biyase said.

He was disappointed by other hospitals that had made use of the agency, yet had also failed to process payments for the services, some dating as far back as a year, he added.

The National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS), which processes most of the tests necessary to diagnose illness, is also owed billions by the department and other provinces. This debt has meant that the NHLS has been unable to give its employees better wages, and they went on strike in July.

During the strike, NHLS chief executive Shabir Madhi told the media they were owed more than R5billion by various provinces, with Gauteng having the largest outstanding debt.

Also read: 'Gauteng Health sabotaging small businesses'

Professor Eric Buch, chairperson of the NHLS board, said they were continuously engaging with the provinces in efforts to secure payment for all the diagnostic services provided by the NHLS.

However, by the end of last month, the total debt accrued from previous years by all provinces was effectively R2.3bn, and the debt for the current financial year was R1.29bn.

Of the total R3.6bn, Gauteng alone owed over R2.6bn, of which R878m was under review.

Buch said the culture of non-payment and under-payment for NHLS services had affected its ability to invest in strategic infrastructure, critical to the operations of the entire organisation.

“The NHLS has also been unable to reduce its debt to its creditors, so the procurement of essential materials, like reagents, is now at risk,” he pointed out.

Read: Gauteng Health owes R2.58 billion for lab tests

The money owed to the NHLS needs to be paid immediately, so that it can continue to provide essential diagnostic services. It has warned that it will not be able to pay its staff beyond November if the debts are not settled.

“We still believe that with the ongoing support of the health minister and through continuous engagement with the role players in the public healthcare sector, the challenge will be resolved,” Buch said, hopeful that reports that they would be unable to pay their staff by November would not transpire.

The Health Department said it had been paying the NHLS R106m a month since April. But Buch explained that this amount was not enough to cover the province’s monthly R151m bill, meaning they were only paying about 64% of what they owed, and their outstanding debt was constantly growing.

On top of these woes, the Sheriff of the high court in Joburg attached furniture and computers from the provincial head office following a R6.2m medical negligence claim it had failed to pay.

The department had failed to negotiate with O Joubert Attorneys to resolve the matter. On September 13, the court issued a further warrant of execution allowing the law firm to attach 14 department bank accounts to claim R33.7m plus 10.5% interest for late payment.

Telkom cut the phone lines to the head office in February, as well as to Bheki Mlangeni Hospital in Soweto.

Staff at Bheki Mlangeni Hospital resorted to using a single cellphone to ensure services.

Read: Unpaid bills leaves Gauteng Health HQ without phones: DA

The cellphone was placed in the casualty ward, which admits around 19200 patients monthly.

Nurses use this cellphone to communicate with doctors and Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, where they refer critical patients.

Olof Joubert, of O Joubert Attorneys, said the Health Department still owed their client money, and that attaching furniture had not been a publicity stunt.

Gauteng Department of Health chief director of legal services Thulani Mlambo explained during a television interview that the department was not permitted to budget for negligence payouts.

“The department has not met its obligations in terms of the court order, that is why the sheriff had to come and attach the furniture,” he said.

He added that they were facing more than 2000 more medical negligence cases.

In another TV interview, Mlambo said: “I cannot tell you where the money will come from to pay for these claims, because we don’t have it.”

The department declined to respond to questions about the seized furniture, medical negligence claims and the money owed to nursing agencies, the NHLS and Telkom.

“We can confirm that the Gauteng Department of Health has paid Telkom, and phone lines are now operational - including phones at Bheki Mlangeni Hospital,” said department spokesperson Khutso Rabothata, who declined to explain further.

However, the DA’s Jack Bloom said many more companies were being told they could not be paid, because of budgetary pressures in the department.

“The department is besieged on all sides by claimants, including lawyers seeking payment of court-ordered settlements for medical negligence,” he said.

He added that there were significant and increasing extra costs arising from the Esidimeni debacle, including the costs of the current arbitration hearings and also the tribunal that is hearing the appeal against the health ombudman’s report.

“Judge Moseneke is likely to award a fairly high monetary payout to bereaved relatives of the (141) deceased Esidimeni patients,” Bloom said.

“I am aware that the Gauteng Health Department has applied for extra funds from the National Treasury, but this has not been forthcoming,” he added.

According to Bloom, the provincial government is going to have to somehow find money for a financial bailout, because the Health Department will not be able to deliver services if unpaid companies stop critical supplies.

“There will be an adjustment budget in November, which is likely to feature a large allocation to the Health Department,” he said.

Commenting on how the department got itself into financial straits, Gauteng health’s director of communications Lesamang Matuka said the provision of health services was a constitutional obligation on the department.

“In discharging this duty, the department does incur supplier debt,” said Matuka.

Supplier debt had outstripped available cash resources for various reasons - including increases in the burden of disease, increases in the population serviced, high medical inflation, and more people losing their medical aids and depending on public healthcare due to the economic environment.

This was compounded by the fact that no additional money had been made available.

One way of managing this, he said, was through aggressively pushing preventive healthcare programmes.

“These are meant to keep patients out of hospitals, thus decreasing demand and by necessary implication accruals,” he said, adding that engagements with the Treasury were continuous.

Mark Heywood of Section27 said the financial problems facing the department were compounded by misspending, as each year billions could not be properly accounted for.

“The figures we are looking at now are close to R7bn over the past five years,” he said.

He said years of financial mismanagement was now impacting on the public’s access to services.

“For a long time the various MECs and senior officials have been able to get away with it,” said Heywood.

He pointed out that an investigation by the Hawks into Gauteng finance launched in 2008/2009 had resulted in a report finalised only in March this year.

“But that report is still not public.

“We are looking at the worst managed Health Department in the country,” said Heywood, claiming that essential health service delivery would soon be affected if mismanagement continued. 

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