File picture: Jennifer Bruce

Durban - The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health has been forced to divert vehicles used for specialised patient care to deliver blood and tissue samples to National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS).

Home visits to patients who need injections for multi-drug-resistant TB had now been compromised, the health department said.

The department also has to pay overtime to staff.

Earlier this week the NHLS suspended its courier service over a R3 billion payment dispute with the department.

Provincial health head, Dr Sibongile Zungu, said vehicles, which would usually be used to attend to patients suffering from illnesses such as multi-drug-resistant TB, were now being used to drop off and pick up samples.

“It is placing a serious strain on resources,” she said on Thursday.

“It calls for some extra work to be done by staff, which means we will have to pay overtime. It is also diverting resources away from other things. It is a big juggling act for us,” Zungu said.

Last week, the NHLS suspended its logistics services to 710 KZN clinics after the department failed to respond to a demand for an outstanding R3bn debt.

This means blood or tissue samples taken from patients will no longer be collected by NHLS couriers for testing at its laboratories.

The KZN Health Department denies it owes the NHLS R3bn.

The decision to suspend logistical services angered health minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, who warned that he would not accept a disruption in service.

He said his department had made too many gains in the treatment of diseases to allow them to be reversed over misunderstandings.

The laboratory service, set up by an act of Parliament, is the country’s largest diagnostic pathology service in South Africa and screens for bacteria, HIV and other viruses, cancers and tuberculosis for the country’s health services.

Zungu said the department was managing with the extra task of couriering their own samples but it was placing strain on other areas.

“For the sake of our patients we had to re-allocate vehicles. Some of these vehicles are used to check on clinics and others are used for home visits for patients who need injections for multi-drug resistant TB and those vehicles are used,” she said.

“The use of those vehicles had to be rationalised. This has affected our patients who would normally receive their injections at a certain time but now have to wait until a vehicle becomes available. It is a disruption to their lives,” she said.

Zungu said her department was expected to meet the NHLS at the national department offices today. She said she was disappointed with the manner in which the lab had taken its decision to suspend logistical services to the province.

“The decision was taken on the eve of a long weekend and that did not even give you time to implement emergency measures. It was very difficult,” she said.

Last Wednesday, NHLS chief executive, Sagie Pillay, wrote a letter to the heads of department of the Gauteng and KZN health departments, informing them of its decision to suspend logistical services because of non-payment. The Gauteng Health Department, which owed the NHLS R900 million, paid R77m to prevent the suspension.

The KZN Health Department did not respond to the threat. Under the plan the suspension would have been extended to 20 community health centres, 37 district hospitals, 13 regional hospitals, three tertiary hospitals and a national hospital over the next six weeks.

According to a source at the NHLS, the agency had also called off its intention to roll out the suspension of its courier service to health centres and hospitals.

Zungu said the NHLS had not informed her of the decision to call off its courier service.

In a letter to staff, Pillay said the failure, by these departments, to pay had meant the lab had been unable to meet a number of its financial commitments.

NHLS spokeswoman, Kaamini Reddy, said the service would no longer comment on the issue.

Daily News