President Donald Ramotar plans to change the policy under which members of the government and other public officials access aid for medical treatment from the Consolidated Fund, former President Bharrat Jagdeo announced yesterday.
“I spoke with President Ramotar about it and he said to me he plans to change this policy,” Jagdeo told a press conference at Freedom House, when asked about the millions of dollars spent on health assistance to ministers and other officials.
Jagdeo informed that Ramotar plans to move to a policy of insurance so that the charge against the Consolidated Fund is limited. “While he can’t take away benefits from constitutional posts, elected people, including the Leader of the Opposition… he will move mainly to maybe to a policy of insurance, so that the charges against the Consolidated Fund will be limited. So if for example, you spend $300,000 a year to create a policy for the person then that’s the extent of the exposure of the treasury,” he said.
“He has recognised that this can’t continue and he has made it clear that he will change it,” Jagdeo added.
The announcement was made in light of concerns prompted by a Health Ministry report for the period 2012 to 2013, which showed that government officials and their associates accounted for the majority of $361.4M in financial assistance for medical treatment disbursed by the state for that period.
Jagdeo agreed that some of the money paid was excessive and should not be funded by state. “I agree that there are some issues that should not be funded by the state and I think the president had made it very clear that he intends to limit people’s access to the Consolidated Fund and that the exposure of the treasury will only be to the extent of their insurance premiums,” he stressed.
Cabinet Secretary Dr. Roger Luncheon last week, justified the spending, saying that the benefits for ministers came as a part of their employment packages and it was inherited by the PPP/C when it came into power in 1992.
“It is a condition of service—maybe unfortunate it isn’t written—but it is a condition of service of cabinet members, when appointed, for the state to take care of their health expenses. This condition is not new, the concept, it is applicable to all public officers, all of our reps abroad at diplomatic offices also have this condition of service. The difference, however, is that condition of service and its expenditure of cabinet members is not rules based,” he told his weekly press conference.
“I would say this, that the evidence exists and we can produce from the beginning of the PPP every single recipient that has enjoyed access to this facility… it is an exercise of discretion in exercising a condition of service which has been extended to include other constitutional positions,” he went on.
Opposition Leader David Granger has stressed that the system needs a structure. Granger said that this “structured policy and guidelines” would be implemented under his leadership should the APNU+AFC alliance win the May 11th elections. “There should be a law that governs the conditions under which members of the Cabinet or members of the government access this particular facility… how much and for how long, that is what is needed,” he said.
A bemused Jagdeo yesterday said that he was surprised at Granger’s recommendations since he had proposed a rule-based system when he was president and it was rejected by the opposition.
“I was very pleased to see Mr. Granger say he wanted [it] to be rules-based and that it should not be the subject of Cabinet’s decisions or historical precedence. He (Granger) did an interview with Stabroek News and when I read it, I said, ‘Really?’ Because… when I did it was rejected,” he noted.
“I argued that the Cabinet decision alone should not be the basis of a charge on the Consolidated Fund. So, let’s take what all the presidents had before and let’s put it in a bill so that it becomes transparent. So, in future, the president can’t determine his own benefits.
The same thing he is asking now for—rules-based transparency—they made a big hullabaloo when I tried to make it transparent. That is what we sought to do and we got slaughtered for it and now he is proposing it. I am glad to see he is coming around to the same thinking I had,” he said.
The Health Ministry report showed over $116M spent in one year on cancer treatment for now deceased presidential advisor Navin Chandarpal. His expenses topped the amount given to a patient with cancer. Patients diagnosed with the same disease and who requested varying amounts were only given a fraction for their treatment. This ranged from $400,000 to $5M of over $116M sought by the patients.
Attorney General Anil Nandlall racked up some $4.9M in medical expenses in September, 2012, in the United States. The cheque for the 42-year-old Nandlall lists “medical support” as the reason.
Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture Ali Baksh received medical assistance for a coronary artery bypass at a cost of $12.2M. This is in addition to $249,600 for his airfare.
Of 10 cheques written for dental work amounting to $4.2M, nine were for Minister of Amerindian Affairs Pauline Sukhai ($2.1M), Minister of Human Services Jennifer Webster ($1.3M), Prime Minister Sam Hinds ($28,240) and his wife Yvonne Hinds ($788,880). A total of $25,160 was paid for the other person who benefitted from dental assistance.