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Durban - The provincial government has taken an uncompromising stand over Durban’s McCord Hospital, raising speculation that the facility, set to close in March, may face liquidation.

The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health is demanding that part of the R70 million granted to the hospital last year, be returned to its coffers.

On Wednesday, the head of the department, Sibongile Zungu, said the not-for-profit hospital would have to answer for how it had spent funds granted last year.

Services which had been promised by the hospital to the provincial department had been suspended mid-year.

The century-old hospital was partly funded by the US presidential fund (Pepfar) until June when its funding was not renewed.

At the same time, the hospital was receiving R70m from the department for health-care services, nurse and doctor training and the treatment of HIV/Aids patients.

When the Pepfar funding was withdrawn, the hospital had to close the HIV care clinic - the first facility of its kind in the country - and government-funded trainees were transferred to other facilities in the city.

Zungu said that as a result of this, the department had not received the services for which it had paid.

Now, “we are going to ask what happened to the money, how was it spent and they will have to pay back a pro-rata amount”, she said.

Zungu said that the amount would be subject to “a process”.

Kevin Smith, manager of McCord, reacted to the statement with shock.

“I don’t want to get into a spat in the media. For the past six months, McCord has appealed for meetings with the department, but we have had no response. We have documented each request,” he said.

“I find it disappointing that the department has not talked to us about this, yet makes this announcement at a media briefing without inviting us. We will ask for clarity in writing and legal advice before we respond.”

On Monday, Smith told The Mercury that the hospital was closing because of doubt over the grant funding. He believed the hospital would meet all its liabilities.

“That’s why we are closing down and not liquidating, because that is the responsible thing to do,” he said.

But Zungu’s statement yesterday gives rise to speculation that the hospital could now face liquidation and not only closure.

It also raises the question of whether the government’s plan is to have the hospital liquidated so that it can then step in and take it over.

Zungu was adamant that the department could not take over McCord as a going concern because of its sizeable debt. “I can’t justify that.”

McCord had not come up with a business plan that satisfied the government’s needs, Zungu said.

“They want to be a private hospital of sorts that offers services to the government for which we pay and then have a private section,” she added. “We can’t be giving money to a facility that runs at a profit.”

Zungu said the department had not met the December 31 deadline for giving McCord notice of whether funding would continue because “we have never met deadlines on this issue before, so why should we do it now? This is a complex issue.”

A committee would meet next week to decide on funding for 60 other facilities similar to McCord Hospital that received grants from the government, Zungu said.

She intimated that the closure of Addington to allow for a five-year revamp might put the construction of new hospitals on hold as money allocated for these ventures would have to be channelled to Addington. She said a decision to close Addington had yet to be discussed. Asked how patients from Addington and McCord, which would close in March, would be accommodated in other public hospitals in the city, Zungu said: “McCord is not a critical issue.”

The decision to close Addington would be taken after consultation with the public, patients and staff, she said.

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The Mercury