A single cellphone is being used for communication by staff at Soweto’s second-biggest hospital as the health department fails to settle its one-year-old debt with Telkom.

Landline phones at Bheki Mlangeni Hospital in Jabulani and Health Department head offices in Johannesburg CBD have been disconnected because of overdue payment. The department was trying to establish how widespread the problem was and if other facilities have been affected.

“We are planning a meeting with Telkom before the end of this week to present our payment plan to find a way forward. I don’t have the figures of how much we owe,” said spokesperson Prince Hamnca yesterday.

The disconnections highlight a mounting debt crisis faced by the department, including medico lawsuits, which has seen the sheriff of the court attaching furniture from the department’s offices.

Staff, including nurses, at the relatively new hospital have resorted to using a cellphone to ensure services continue after landlines went dead around February. The cellphone is placed in the casualty ward which admits 19211 patients monthly. Nurses use this to communicate with doctors and Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital where they refer critical patients.

The Star understands that the hospital took out three cellphone contracts. However, two phones have been stolen. Families of patients also have no contact with the hospital.

The hospital’s intercom system is also not reliable as it often breaks down.

“We’ve been using that phone since February. We mainly use it to call doctors and ambulances when we need to have a patient transported to Baragwanath. It’s a disaster and a major inconvenience because all the departments such as Labour and ICU also use it. Sometimes it is difficult to locate because everybody feels entitled to it and because of that other hospitals and clinics cannot reach us timeously.

“The cellphone register system is also in tatters. It’s all we can do to help patients,” said a nurse.

As a 396-bed district hospital, Bheki Mlangeni services at least five clinics in Soweto and oversees at least 7500 out-patients and 45 motor vehicle accident patients per month.

An employee at the hospital’s Human Resource office said they are sometimes forced to break protocol and agree to receive calls on their personal cellphones to confirm employment status of their colleagues to their creditors and prospective employees.

“By law, outsiders are supposed to call us on the office line to enquire about our employees. That is because we can trace a number from outside and record it but because of the current crisis I’m forced to deviate from protocol and risk losing my job. This is unacceptable and unprofessional,” said an employee.

Board chairman Mahlomula Kekana said: “We are not privy to that information (of disconnections) and the management has not said anything to us. We will do our own investigation.”

Telkom spokesperson Gugulethu Maqetuka said the disconnections were a last resort after “the department failed to come to the party to resolve this matter”. He did not want to disclose how much Telkom is owed but said it was a 12-month-old debt.

“We have been having ongoing discussions with the department but there is no commitment,” he said.

Maqetuka, however, said the disconnections could have been due to a technical fault.

DA’s Gauteng shadow health MEC Jack Bloom said the department was under immense pressure to settle its debts and that in March it owed R1.2billion in late payments to 808 companies that had not been paid within the legally required period of 30 days.