Getting to the truth of the $632m drug purchases

Step by step the country is being brought closer to a clear understanding of the whopping single-sourcing of $632m in supposedly emergency drug purchases by the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) earlier this year.

In Parliament on Friday, PPP/C MP Juan Edghill’s questions on the matter were answered by Finance Minister Winston Jordan. In his answers, the Finance Minister confirmed, as had been reported before, that the National Procure-ment and Tender Administration Board (NPTAB) had not authorised these single-sourced purchases, with the largest one being $605m for the Trinidad conglomerate ANSA McAl.

Mr Jordan explained that while there have been requests from both the GPHC and the Ministry of Public Health over time for permission for single-sourcing, the NPTAB’s preferred course of action was to find the most appropriate method of procurement as catered for by the law and these requests for sole-sourcing were declined.

It therefore would have been with much consternation that word was received by the Ministry of Finance and the NPTAB that a request was made for the waiver of the emergency purchase of $605m from ANSA McAl. By the time that the request had been received the purchase had already been made in flagrant breach of the procurement laws of the country. The purchases, all told, were not of the order of a million dollars or two. They totalled $632m, enough to warrant a serious investigation of all aspects of the transaction. This matter has been on the radar since March this year and, regrettably, July has arrived without a resolution. It remains unclear what is detaining the production of two reports by the Chairman of the Board of the GPHC, Kesaundra Alves and, more importantly, one by the Public Procurement Commission (PPC), chaired by Carol Corbin.

Minister Jordan made another significant disclosure in response to Mr Edghill’s questions which should raise alarm within the government about procurement practices since it took office. He said that there were 18 times between January 1, 2016 and April 30, 2017 when requests were made by the GPHC for waiver of the Tender Board procedures. This is an alarming figure and raises anxieties about what exactly was transpiring at the GPHC long after the government entered office. The numerous requests for waivers over the aforementioned period raise serious questions about drug procurement at the country’s largest public health facility for which billions are allocated annually. Why is it that no one in authority at the Ministry of Public Health and the GPHC was flagging these transactions and recognising that there was a major problem? The problem should have been apparent as there had been numerous complaints about the shortage of drugs. The key question to settle is whether there were attempts by hospital or ministry staff to deliberately hold back or delay orders in a bid to trigger the so-called emergency response and secure a waiver of usual procurement processes.

The APNU+AFC government had already been in office for six months when the first applications for the suspension of normal procurement procedures began coming in. It raises serious questions about the stewardship of the former Minister of Public Health, Dr George Norton and the former management and board of the GPHC. What about Cabinet? Why was it not aware of what was happening here?

It is now left up to the two inquiries to pronounce on the events that led to the $632m single-sourced purchases, who authorised them and how the illegalities should be resolved. There is also the matter of the role of the current Minister of Public Health, Volda Lawrence in the scandal. She had been reported by her own ministry as stating that she had fast-tracked the purchases.  The minister and other key players in this matter have been interviewed by the PPC. The credibility of the government as it relates to procurement is on the line.

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