While labelling the government’s proposed national budget a “borrow, tax and squander” one, PPP/C parliamentarian Dr. Frank Anthony yesterday took the Ministry of Public Health to task for its many procurement breaches, saying it was one of several areas of evident wasteful spending.
In his contribution to the National Assembly’s budget debate, which was at times punctuated by heated exchanges with government members, Anthony, a medical doctor by profession, focused his attention on the health sector and charged that there has been a steady decline of the allocation to the sector in recent years.
Anthony, who served as Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport under the former PPP/C administration, declared that the country is getting no value for the money spent in the sector and he singled out procurement as a critical area where there has been waste.
Referring to Auditor General (AG) Deodat Sharma’s recent report, he noted that it lists the Public Health Ministry as being guilty of breaking almost every section of the Procurement Act and added that the malpractice in procurement “continues unabated” at the ministry.
He cited the controversial contract awarded to New York-based firm HDM Labs Inc and said it was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg and he called on the government to take action against the transgressor.
Among other things, the AG’s report stated that HDM Labs instead of an agreed two weeks, took six months to fully deliver on a contract valued hundreds of millions for “emergency” pharmaceutical supplies sought last year by the Public Health Ministry. The process under which the contract was awarded was called into question as HDM did not bid during the initial tender and later became the lone company to bid when the contract was retendered. The higher prices quoted for the drugs as opposed to those listed by the companies that initially bid for the contract was also highlighted in the report.
According to Anthony, from 2015 to 2017 the government spent vast sums to buy drugs and other medical supplies and many of the contracts were awarded on an emergency basis so that the deliveries were time-bound because of shortages in the health sector. However, he said what is “unbelievable” is that $345 million spent over a period of time was paid for drugs that were not delivered. He said that somebody needs to explain what is going on in the ministry as apart from what he listed there is a shortage of drugs in almost every health facility.
“Don’t come here and pretend there is not shortage,” a fired up Anthony thundered as the government members attempted to drown him out with heckles. “We know differently and what is important is the patients in this country know differently because when they go to the health facilities they can’t get drugs, so don’t come here and pretend,” he continued.
Anthony also claimed that many of the pharmaceutical suppliers do not have licences to import drugs and are not registered with the Government Analyst-Food and Drug Department. He challenged Public Health Minister Volda Lawrence to prove him wrong by bringing the list of registrants.
Lawrence was vociferous in her objections to his statements and was supported by some of her colleagues. They were then countered by the opposition. This situation caused Speaker of the House Dr. Barton Scotland to caution the members.
“You can’t get, you can’t,” Government Chief Whip Amna Ally heckled, referring to the words of the Dave Martins song.
Continuing his presentation, Anthony noted that the ministry’s flagship programme is the construction of its new office but he added that the project has now become emblematic of incompetence.
“It must be a national embarrassment,” he said as he pointed out that despite all of the issues with the project, another $438.9 million is earmarked in this year’s budget to continue the building. He called for an independent investigation of the project.
“What about the High Street building?” questioned Lawrence in reference to the poorly constructed building under the PPP/C government and which was earmarked for occupation by various ministries and agencies.
Anthony also criticised the upgrading work being done on the Diamond Hospital as he pointed out that the contract was originally $21.4 million but later varied by an additional $18.1 million.
“You build a hospital over a septic tank,” Lawrence countered much to the vocal approval of her colleagues on her side.
But Anthony took a drink of water and continued as Lawrence’s colleagues heckled him. He said the ministry did not receive any approval from the national tender board for the variation of the contract.
The PPP/C’s Chief Whip Gail Teixeira noted that Lawrence was once the Chair-person of the Public Accounts Committee “and she knows these things.”
Anthony also mentioned doctors’ quarters at Port Kaituma, for which money was budgeted but not spent. With funds budgeted again for the project next year, he questioned what assurance the country has “when we put this money in here for this year that after so many years of procrastination by the ministry that the needed facility will be built?”
“There are many more infrastructure programmes like this where there is total incompetence and mismanagement,” he added.
You can’t make this stuff up
Anthony also charged that outsourcing of storage seems to be a big business in the ministry and he cited the controversial rental of the Sussex Street, Albouystown drug bond, on which millions of dollars was spent.
“It is extremely difficult to make up this stuff,” he said and much to the amusement to his colleagues he suggested that a movie be made, titled “Warehouse One: The Sussex Street drama, starring George and Volda.”
Dr George Norton, now Minister of Social Cohesion and Culture, was the Public Health Minister when government signed the controversial bond contract.
Anthony also bemoaned the shortage of beds at the Georgetown Public Hospital and according to him patients are made to wait at the Accident and Emergency unit for long periods even though they are admitted because of the situation.
He also criticised what he described as the failure of the national Tuberculosis (TB) programme as he pointed out that some patients are now on the multi-drug resistant treatment regimen and many of them are too ill to work. More importantly, he said, there is a shortage of the needed drugs in the country, which can hurt or even kill patients.
Meanwhile, government Member of Parliament (MP) Charandass Persaud used most of his allotted 15 minutes to respond to issues raised by earlier presenters as it relates to Region Six.
Apart from listing what the government did for the region and what is allocated, he labelled the PPP/C MP Joseph Hamilton a dreamer for saying the government will be kicked out of office in 2020. He warned the opposition to come to the table with clean hands and added that those “with glass house should not throw stones.” He also said if Minister of Public Infrastructure David Patterson is taken to court for issuing an order so that the Berbice Bridge could come under government’s control, following the bridge company’s announcement that the tolls would be raised astronomically, he would be represented free of cost as he would be prosecuted for something good.
For his part, PPP/C’s Ganga Persaud labelled Persaud’s presentation as theatrical and questioned where the money will come from for the bridge’s operations since the government made no allocation for it in the budget. He called the budget extremely disappointing and added that it is devoid of any significant measures that can restore what he described as the good life that Guyanese enjoyed before 2015.