Following the disclosure in Stabroek News that the government has allocated $6m in medical aid for former magistrate Fazil Azeez, PPP/C MP Juan Edghill has queried the government’s policy on assistance for families in dire need.
Stabroek News had reported on Friday on secret Cabinet decisions to approve US$14,224 on June 16, 2017, and US$15,000 on September 26, 2017, to cover the cost of treatment of Azeez, 65, who was shot in the back in 2015 and sustained a spinal cord injury.
In a letter in the October 8th edition of Stabroek News, Edghill said that he was in support of Azeez’s full recovery. However, he enquired about the guiding policies that determine the beneficiaries of such help.
He said that in his individual capacity, as a Member of Parliament and in engagements with the public at the office of the Leader of the Opposition, there have been numerous requests for help for medical treatment both locally and overseas.
“Based on my knowledge, as a former member of Cabinet, I did refer several families to the Ministry of Public Health for assistance, only for them to be told by ministry officials that the medical assistance facility was not accessible in their circumstance.
“I, therefore, invite the Public Health Minister or the Cabinet, through the Minister of State, to make public the government’s policy on medical assistance to families who are in dire need, particularly those needing to travel abroad to access health care.
“I expect that this approach would lend itself to equal opportunity and access, in a non-discriminatory manner, where political affiliation, religion, race and class are not criteria for favourable consideration. I am sure that the line for such assistance is being formed and has, probably, encircled the perimeter of the Ministry of Public Health. Clarity on government’s medical assistance policy would answer many questions that are being asked”, he said.
He said that the Guyanese people need to be aware of the ceiling as it relates to benefits for access to medical care locally: is it $1million or $6 million? He further asked if medical assistance is available locally at public institutions, under what circumstances do persons qualify for benefits? If medical help is available locally at private institutions, under what circumstances do persons qualify for benefits?
Secondly, when referrals are made for patients to seek further medical care abroad, under what circumstances do they qualify for assistance and what is the ceiling? Is it $1 million or $6 million? He further asked if there is a network of medical professionals and institutions that the government is partnering with.
Thirdly, he also queried to what extent, does one’s financial standing, or lack thereof, qualify them or prohibit them from being able to access medical help.
Finally, he enquired as to the officer authorised to approve medical assistance, who makes the final determination about access and the amount of assistance accessed. He asked whether it was the subject Minister, Cabinet or a technical officer.
On Friday, when asked about the help for Azeez from the government and the failure to disclose the payment, Minister of State Joseph Harmon declined to comment.
“Any information which seeks to come from a Cabinet document that I am asked about to comment at these press conferences I will respectfully ask that you name your sources so that we can deal with it. I will not be answering questions as it relates to somebody said this about a Cabinet document…because there are specific rules in our laws as it relates to Cabinet information and I would ask that you respect that because there are criminal penalties for violation of those rules,” Harmon said when asked by Stabroek News at the post-Cabinet press briefing why the approval of the money for Azeez was not made public.
Harmon emphasised that Cabinet documents are secret until they are disclosed by him, as he is the Secretary to the Cabinet.
He stressed that he would like the media to say who provided the information “so we must be able to investigate it.”
Asked if as Cabinet Secretary he has launched any investigation to ascertain who is leaking documents, he responded, “I am saying that in the event where the press has reported that they have information, I am asking that you cooperate with the government so that we can deal with this matter. It is a criminal act.”
Harmon declined to confirm the approval of the payments for Azeez’s overseas medical expenses.
“…I said that I am not going to deal with these matters in relating to Cabinet decisions that have not been properly brought to the public,” he said, before adding that there is a process when it comes to medical attention for a Guyanese citizen.
“For sums of money which [are] less than $1 million, it is dealt with at the level of the Ministry of Public Health. Any sum of money beyond that which is required for the treatment of any Guyanese comes to Cabinet for its approval,” he explained.
Harmon added that he will not comment on the matter any further. “The health and well-being of our citizens [are] a private and confidential matter and I know you would not want, if you are to be treated abroad for any reason, for the public to be saying well why are we spending money on you and why are we not spending money on this other person. All I would need to say to you is that there is a process and that the process requires a certain level of intervention by the doctors at a certain level…,” he added.
The Cabinet decisions, which were seen by Stabroek News, resulted from memorandums submitted by Minister of Public Health, Volda Lawrence.
According to the last decision, it was noted that Cabinet agreed at its meeting on September 26 that that US$15,000 payment for medical treatment would be the final payment by the Government of Guyana.
In a letter to Lawrence, dated August 28, 2017 and seen by Stabroek News, Azeez had appealed for additional funds, while noting that his “present medical status is in the balance because without the [stem] cell therapy my chance of walking again is dubious.”
Azeez explained that he had to “tone down” his rehabilitation due to the fact that the tissue around his knees became inflamed and swollen due to the rigorous nature of the physiotherapy. The letter was penned after he would have returned from Cuba.
Based on a quotation prepared by a doctor, the total cost of the medical services for Azeez is US$12, 963. Aside from the surgery, other services that the cost will cover are 20 days hospitalisation in a private room, including food and nursing care, and his companion’s accommodation and food.
He appealed to the minister for her “compassionate consideration,” while mentioning that Prime Minister Moses Nagamootoo recently visited him at his Kitty home and had indicated that he would discuss the case with her.
Azeez had gone to a construction site at Eccles on April 25, 2015, to pay workers when he was confronted by a lone gunman. He resisted and was shot in his abdomen by the armed man, who escaped after persons rushed out upon hearing the gunshot, the police had said in a statement on the shooting. The suspect in his shooting, Shelton George, was charged this year with the crime but subsequently died in prison.
Questions have been raised for a number of years, particularly under the previous PPP/C administration, about how the government decides which appeals for medical assistance should be granted and to what extent. Under the PPP/C, there had been an outcry after revelations about amounts that had been spent from state coffers for several government officials, including for cosmetic procedures. Ministers Pauline Sukhai and Jennifer Webster among others had been found to have spent millions of dollars on procedures that had not been deemed as life-saving.
This led to a statement on March 2nd, 2015 by the then opposition APNU+AFC which condemned the “vanity medical procedures.”
It said that at the same time that PPP officials are haemorrhaging monies from the public coffers on their teeth and other “narcissistic” procedures, ordinary Guyanese who are faced with large medical bills are being turned away from government offices when they seek public aid.
The alliance said then that the levels to which the disparity between the ordinary Guyanese and this elite group of PPP ministers and their friends have reached is obscene.
APNU+AFC called on all Guyanese to “condemn this blatant abuse of the tax dollars”.
It said that APNU+AFC was committed to responsible and equitable distribution of funds for medical procedures for all Guyanese and also to a comprehensive overhaul of the healthcare system.