Minister Lawrence and the $605m procurement

Following the furore over the $605m emergency purchase for the Georgetown Public Hospital (GPHC), the Minister of Public Health, Volda Lawrence has provided further clarification on her role in the process. She admits to having fast-tracked the purchase of emergency drugs after becoming aware of a supply problem at the GPHC when she took up the portfolio in January. She, however, insists that she played no part in the acquisition that followed and which was completely ultra vires of the law. In her Ministry’s statement of March 11th, Ms Lawrence is quoted as explaining her role thusly: “The health system will not be held hostage by unprincipled persons and therefore I made the decision to shortlist the critical but unavailable items and the suppliers with the ability to provide them on time to avert deepening the drug demand difficulties”.

Neither Minister Lawrence nor her government can escape responsibility for this fiasco which made a mockery of an important law that had been hallowed ground for both APNU and the AFC while they were in opposition. By her own admission, Minister Lawrence encountered a chaotic and corrupt procurement system at the GPHC/Ministry of Public Health when she took up the portfolio. The process was enveloped in poor performance by suppliers, collusion, trading of information, theft of drugs, manipulation of the system to abet certain purchasers and fabrication of records. In addition to all of this, there was a genuine shortage of drugs. Both of these problems call into question the performance of the APNU+AFC government and its top officials over the period in question. The government has expended much energy on audits of its predecessor while its unsteady hand at the helm left this important institution foundering in corruption and incompetence.

Given the numerous abominations discovered by Minister Lawrence and the drug shortage at the GPHC, one is left to wonder what the government and its former Minister of Health Dr Norton had done for 20 months. Was this the expected performance of a senior government minister who secured a whopping 50% increase in salary after just a few short months in office? At the Cabinet level, weren’t President Granger or Prime Minister Nagamootoo aware of the shenanigans that were occurring in the drug procurement system and the shortage of medicines at GPHC? After all, shortages had been repeatedly complained of in the public but these grievances had been smothered by Dr Norton and others. What type of governance is this? When his hand was forced, instead of dismissing Dr Norton, the President simply moved him sideways into this still abstruse Ministry of Social Cohesion.

So having become aware of the poisoned chalice she inherited – which she described in detail in her first defence to the media – Minister Lawrence set about addressing the drug supply crisis. Her course of action was the instituting of fast-tracked procurement of drugs for the GPHC. The layman interprets this as speeding up the process except that the Minister should have been acutely aware that any acceleration of the purchases had to be in full compliance with the law. The law doesn’t cater for ”fast-tracking”. It caters for sole-sourcing, restricted tendering and requests for quotations among other processes and these have their own pre-conditions that have to be met.  The law doesn’t cater at all for shortlisting of suppliers and emergency drugs.

It is at this point that Minister Lawrence seeks to extricate herself from any responsibility for the procurement but that is easier said than done. Minister Lawrence’s permission for fast-tracking was cited in the February 28th, 2017 letter written by the GPHC CEO Allan Johnson to the Chairman of the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board, Berkley Wickham for the approval of the $605m purchase, a request bewilderingly out of line with anything known in the Procurement Act.

As the Minister of Public Health, Minister Lawrence had no authority at all to instruct the GPHC on drug procurement. That was a matter for the board of this corporate entity. Minister Lawrence justified her role on the grounds that the board had not been functioning at the time – another sign of problems that the administration has had with its choices and the mandates given to directors.

Having taken on the challenge of fast-tracking the drug purchases, it was then Minister Lawrence’s absolute responsibility to ensure that what the GPHC was doing in her name complied fully with the tenets of the Procurement Act.  It didn’t and Minister Lawrence said she was unaware of the terms of the $605m purchase when she was contacted by Mr Wickham after he received the request for the approval of the transaction. By this time,  ANSA McAl had already begun supplying the drugs. There is also the very important question of why emergency medications and non-emergency medications were lumped all together in this huge transaction with ANSA McAl. Why weren’t the non-emergency medications put out to open tender?

What makes Minister Lawrence’s neglect of any due diligence in this transaction even more unfathomable is the fact that she was a long-serving Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament which annually pores over transactions like the one for $605m, points out the egregious transgressions of the law and reprimands accounting officers. If Minister Lawrence had exercised a modicum of caution in this matter or employed her prior experience at the PAC she might have been able to ensure an orderly, lawful transaction at the GPHC.

What happened in the end was a complete abandonment of the procurement process and its replacement with something unrecognisable. The contracts apparently never went to cabinet for the no-objection. It was a shocking violation of the procurement law and a telling commentary on the government. How President Granger can salvage credibility for his government from this debacle is unclear. The transactions with ANSA, New GPC and two other companies for the “emergency” drugs for GPHC were unlawful and should be declared so. What happens thereafter is for the legal people to work out.

That such transactions can be occurring 20 months after this government took office and with the Minister having initiated the process will take a lot of explaining to do. Efforts are already underway to excuse Minister Lawrence though the reality is that she must bear responsibility for what transpired.  This matter still needs to be thoroughly investigated and it can’t be done by the new GPHC Board for obvious reasons. This investigation must be undertaken by the Public Procurement Commission as rapidly as possible and its findings laid before the public. In the meanwhile, President Granger would be well advised to admonish his ministers and state agencies to acquaint themselves fully with the Procurement Act and abide zealously by their provisions.

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