GOVERNMENT’S decision to bring to the House of Assembly Tuesday a bill to amend the Millennium Heights Medical Complex Act triggered a debate amongst parliamentarians that reflected one thing: that the healthcare situation in the country is seen by some strictly through political party lines.
But while the government and the opposition agree that the state of healthcare in the country is bad, they differ considerably on the course of action to take to fix the situation. And a two-year contract given to an Indian company to design an operating system for the Owen King European Union (OKEU) Hospital is generating talks of privatization from the opposition.
Prime Minister Allen Chastanet’s point that the Act failed to encompass the movement of a public officer to a private entity like the Owen King European Union Hospital, triggered a debate in the House that showed clearly the disconnect of the two sides in healing the perennial healthcare malady in the country.
Chastanet’s added reference that the Act only makes general reference to who has the power to second a public officer to the service of the Board of the medical complex and has an inconsistency and ambiguity that needs to be cured was instantly challenged by the opposition.
The prime minister’s contention that the bill before the House sought to amend the Act by deleting any reference to the transfer of a public officer, like a doctor or a nurse, to the medical complex and instead make reference only to the secondment of that public officer was also challenged.
The prime minister said the bill sought to make clear which entity has the power to second a public officer to the service of the Board of the medical complex and to remedy what he described as ‘a vexing problem to give staff currently employed within the civil service the confidence that when they are seconded to the medical complex their pensions would be intact.’
Then Chastanet made an announcement that has been at the heart of the healthcare debate island-wide, which had to do with the privatization of the OKEU Hospital.
“There is no intention on my government’s part to privatize OKEU and there never has been,” Chastanet said. But this declaration did not sway the opposition at all. In fact, members of the opposition stood their ground in declaring that this was not the case at all.
Opposition Leader Philip J Pierre questioned Chastanet’s proclamation asking whether the amendment to the Act was a move to privatize the hospital.
“What will happen to the ward maids, the porters, the non-established workers who cannot be seconded nor transferred?” Pierre asked.
He was not in favour of the amendment stating that as the Act stands when workers are seconded their pension rights are preserved. He however questioned whether seconded workers’ security of tenure was guaranteed.
Pierre, whose party was the one which powered the Act through parliament back in 2015 further noted that the amendment was simply preparing the ground to remove the word ‘transferring’ and replace it with ‘secondment’ to make it easier for the government should the OKEU Hospital become privatized.
Former Prime Minister and former Leader of the Opposition Dr Kenny Anthony said it was erroneous to say that the legislation introduced by his government in 2015 did not provide security to the employees to be transferred from a medical institution.
Anthony then went on to read from the Act where security of tenure was enshrined. His view was that the removal of the word ‘transfer’ as the amendment suggested and its replacement by the word ‘secondment’ was fundamental. He said the word ‘secondment’ meant “a person’s reassignment from his or her regular appointment to some temporary assignment elsewhere.”
He voiced that it was always understood in the public service that secondment would be temporary and that the amendment did not define secondment.
“The reality is that if you are using the word ‘secondment’ then you are importing the ordinary meaning of the word ‘secondment’ unless you ascribe some other meaning,” Anthony said.
From the opposition side of the House the general output in a nutshell, as explained by Shawn Edward, the representative for Dennery North, was that the amendment as proposed by the government was simply to prepare the way for the government to give the OKEU Hospital to a foreign interest to manage.
Efforts by the prime minister and others on his side of the House to dispel that notion did not shake the opposition’s belief, at least at Tuesday’s House sitting.
Chastanet explained that the operating procedures at both St Jude Hospital and Victoria Hospital are archaic, ineffective and inefficient, quickly adding however that St Jude’s operating system is better than Victoria’s.
“We have to ensure that when we are transferring into OKEU that we have an operating procedure that is going to allow it to be efficient,” Chastanet said, adding that of all experts in that field his government has met, Cayman Health City, which is believed to be an Indian company, was the one his government had decided to give a two-year contract to assist government in designing an operating system for the OKEU Hospital.
The prime minister did not name the consultancy firm however Pierre, reading from a memo he said came from the Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health to all Heads of Department and general staff, named the consultancy firm as Narayana Hrudayalaya.
An online check of Narayana Hrudayalaya revealed that it operates 21 of its own hospitals as well as manages two. It is a healthcare chain which has seven heart centres, 19 primary health facilities as well as one hospital in the Cayman Islands.
Pierre views the contract given to the foreign company as disrespectful to Saint Lucians noting that under the former labour administration a group of locals were contracted to deal with the transitioning of Victoria Hospital to the OKEU Hospital. The local team, Pierre said was led by Dr Stephen King and a commissioning board had already been formed, details that he noted were changed by the present government.