0301 Johannesburg Hospital CEO, Sagie Pillay. Johannesburg Hospital. 310308 - Picture: Jennifer Bruce

Johannesburg -

Cancer patients who need to undergo screening or those who need CD4-count testing and HIV testing are at risk after it emerged that, once again, the National Health Laboratory Service is battling to recoup massive outstanding debt from the KZN and Gauteng health departments.

Last Wednesday, the laboratory service’s chief executive, Sagie Pillay, wrote a letter informing his staff that services to the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng clinics would be suspended.

An insider at the service says the KZN department owes R3 billion, which is being disputed, while Gauteng owes R900 million.

Gauteng paid R77m on Friday to stop suspension of services. The cash crunch, which has in the past resulted in the closure of laboratories in KZN, has persisted despite legal and national Health Department intervention.

Pillay’s letter to the two departments said: “This increasing pressure of non-payment has resulted in the service being unable to meet a number of its own financial commitments.

“This has presented a dire challenge to the organisation, with several strategic meetings being held in determining the best way possible to address this. The service has made several attempts to explore all options available to ensure significant payment is received from the said provinces without success.”

As well as providing diagnostic tests for public health facilities in all provinces, the laboratory service conducts research and trains medical technologists and technicians.

Its specialised divisions include the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the National Cancer Registry and the South African Vaccine Producers which manufactures snake, spider and scorpion antivenom.

On Sunday, the service’s spokeswoman, Kaamini Reddy, confirmed that, should there be no agreement, it intended stopping the collection of patient specimens from public hospitals in KZN.

The Health and Other Service Personnel Trade Union of South Africa said it was “an unacceptable state of affairs” which would see patient specimens lie uncollected at clinics, and which had left laboratory service employees worried about their jobs. Already salary increases are on hold and vacant posts frozen.

Reddy said the provincial departments were warned of the intention to withdraw services a week before they were notified it would be implemented, and the decision had been reached “after exhausting every possible alternative”.

However, the head of the KZN Health Department, Sibongile Zungu, said the decision was “inappropriate” and “insensitive” and the massive bill “inaccurate”.

Zungu indicated that the national Health Department would be intervening on Monday.

Asked to confirm that her department was R3bn in the red Zungu declined, saying the detail was the subject of a discussion with the national department.

An insider at the service said it was on the verge of collapse.

“The Gauteng Health Department paid us after the minister intervened, but KZN still refused to pay, saying we are overcharging them.

“We have not paid our creditors. There is one creditor who we owe R120m. If this carries on, we are going to end up with some of the service providers pulling out.”

The Star, The Mercury and Sapa