The opposition yesterday voted down a $1.3 billion allocation for the health sector that includes financing for the controversial specialty hospital.
The allocation was part of $21.5 billion to be allocated for the health sector in the government’s proposed $220 billion budget.
A sum of $910 million for the hospital was lumped with other allocations for other projects under the budget line item ‘Regional and Clinical Services’ in Capital expenditure, which included funds for upgrades to health care facilities countrywide, and which amounted to $1.3 billion in total.
The opposition had cut down funding for the hospital during last year’s consideration of the budget estimates.
A Partnership for National Unity’s Chief Whip Amna Ally told Committee of Supply members and Chairman Raphael Trotman that the main opposition was willing to meet in the sub-committee set up by the Speaker on Wednesday to see if a mutually beneficial understanding could be reached. Ahead of the start of the consideration of estimated spending, the Speaker had announced his proposal for the establishment of a sub-committee of the Committee of Supply to examine proposals for amendments and to find consensus or agreement where possible, and thereafter to report to the Committee of Supply.
However government’s Chief Whip Gail Teixeira informed the house that all sides had agreed to give her party a list of all the contentious items proposed for cuts by 9 am yesterday but the time had elapsed without them getting it.
She said that subsequently and substantially later she received correspondence from APNU but its list was vague and she therefore did not believe that the meeting would have yielded any compromise.
The AFC later said in a statement that it had lobbied government to de-link the $910 million from the $1.3 billion allocated for other areas, but the PPP/C opted to have the whole programme cut down, and refused efforts by Trotman at last minute negotiations.
It noted that it has indicated to government that it would vote for the $370 million projects outside the Specialty Hospital, should the package be brought back to the National Assembly for a Supplementary vote.
“The Specialty Hospital has been touted to attract medical tourism and is being funded from a loan from the Exim Bank of India. Though funded by the State, Government had disclosed that the institution would be manned, mostly, by non-nationals and that its primary source for clientele would be foreigners seeking specialised medical treatment,” it said.
“The Alliance For Change has long been concerned that funding for this ‘private’ hospital could be better spent on upgrading and expanding the services at all state hospitals,” the party also noted.
When Trotman yesterday called for the members of the sub-committee to meet, in his chambers, PPP/C members refused to go. Government’s defence of its stance was echoed by its Minister of Finance Dr. Ashni Singh who opined that if the opposition wanted successful talks it would have adhered to the arrangements set up the day before.
“First of all, they sent an email to Gail Teixeira identifying four broad areas. They didn’t indicate whether they wanted those things to be reduced; they didn’t indicate if they wanted those things o be cut or removed entirely from the budget,” Singh said when asked by Stabroek News if the list of opposition’s proposals was indeed received.
“…It came late. Secondly, it was extremely vague in its intentions. It can’t be considered in isolation about what would come tomorrow or the day after… no reasonable person would compromise on one matter today not knowing if you are going to raise another 10 matters tomorrow,” the Finance Minister added.
When the Committee of Supply was reconvened, there was a call for a division and the capital expenditure in the line item was voted down 33 to 32 in favour of the opposition.
The specialty hospital has been a contentious project since the controversial award of the contract to Surendra Engineering in 2012.
During last year’s consideration of the budget estimates, a proposed $1.25 billion allocation for the hospital was cut by the opposition. Main opposition APNU had pointed to the government’s lack of dialogue on the opposition’s concern that the formulation of the deal was not transparent, while the AFC pointed out that Surendra Engineering was responsible for defects at the Enmore Sugar Packaging Plant and also that it had never before built a hospital.
At one point, another Indian firm, Fedders Lloyd, had complained about the tendering process, saying that Surendra was awarded because of favouritism and its links to the current ruling administration. It had written to the Ministry of Health outlining its concerns.
However, at the December 12, 2013 sitting of the National Assembly, government managed to secure approval of $34.4M for the project owing to the absence of APNU member Volda Lawrence during the vote. This paved the way for foundation works for the hospital to commence in January this year, for which BK International was hired by Surendra Engineering.
Recently, AFC leader Khemraj Ramjattan had stated that the project was still in limbo as the Exim Bank of India has halted funding amid claims of corruption by one Indian parliamentarian and a company.
Stabroek News understands that the release of the monies for the hospital is riding on the outcome of India’s general elections as the country’s current opposition has questioned the award of contracts in various countries, citing corruption. The Specialty Hospital contract has been one of the projects that have come up for scrutiny in the Indian Parliament.
Meanwhile, the opposition subjected Minister of Health Bheri Ramsaran to a barrage of questions on several other line items for both capital and current expenditure, such as ministry administration, diseases control, primary health care services, health sciences education and rehabilitation services.
Ramsaran, in nearly all of his replies, pointed out to the asking member, saying “That is a very good question.” Some of the questions he readily answered but he asked the Chairman for time to provide detailed answers to others. These included what percentage of the health sector’s funds went to the New GPC for drug supplies and which other companies supplied the Ministry of Health with drugs. A comparative pricing list was also requested for other companies, which Ramsaran promised to deliver. “Historic data shoes that the New GPC gets a significant slice of the pie,” he, however, pointed out.