The Ministry of Public Health and the tender process

The manner in which drugs and other materiel associated with the delivery of services at the state-run health care institutions in Guyana are acquired has long been the subject of animated public chatter that often alights upon the subject of the circumvention of tender regulations and excursions into what are believed to be optional corrupt practices. These discourses have, from time to time, implicated well-placed public functionaries believed to be ‘in tight’ with political operatives whom, it is felt, give the green light to corruption-driven practices. What has, over time, lent currency to alleged corrupt practices in the health sector that assign lucrative contracts without adherence to tender procedures is the fact that the investigations into alleged irregularities rarely if ever appear to be prosecuted with any real sense of vigour and diligence, a circumstance that has led to the widespread view that there is usually no great eagerness to probe discrepancies and find guilty parties. Over time, those who fret over tender irregularities resign themselves to the notion that the arbitrary circumvention of laid down tender procedures is part of what is loosely described as ‘the capture of the state’ by those who hold the reins of power.

We do not have to go too far back to discover that the manner in which a particular private sector entity made a ‘pretty penny’ out of being a favoured purchaser of drugs  ordered by the Government of Guyana, an arrangement that was underpinned by the blatant evasion of the state tender process. What applied instead was an open regimen of ‘deals’ in which the state functionary/functionaries entered into bilateral arrangements with pre-determined buyers and from which those functionaries reportedly benefitted handsomely. One might add of course that other state agencies have also been known to circumvent National Procurement and Tender Administration procedures in arrangements which are said to involve bribes and kickbacks.

 Two points should be made at this juncture. First, of course, there can arise circumstances of an emergency nature that give rise to the need to circumvent the tender process in the interest of a timely response to emergencies within the health system. In such cases it is absolutely important that we ensure that the departure from standard practice is attended by a generous measure of fairness and transparency. Indeed, in circumstances where the customary tender process has to be set aside to respond to an emergency then there is all the more reason why the circumstances must be verified and properly documented. Whether any such documentation customarily takes place is unclear.

 The second point to be made here is that state purchases for medical supplies to meet the needs of our health services regularly run into hundreds of millions of dollars and it is therefore not difficult to see where once you set aside the tender procedure leaving the arrangements to an alternative regime there is a good chance that you could end up with a situation that is vulnerable to all sorts of irregularities.  We have, over the years, grown used to those stories of one sort or another regarding ‘deals’ in which businesses have been favoured to supply drugs and other medical equipment in a manner that has given rise to a regimen of kickbacks from which backroom manipulators have benefitted.  By this time we know enough to be aware that some of those stories are entirely true.

 Sole tendering, evidently, has survived the previous political administration. The practice still persists. Recall that late last year the Public Procurement Commission (PPC) cleared Minister of Public Health Volda Lawrence  of any wrongdoing in the matter of the acquisition of $632 million worth of drugs for the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation that breached the procurement law, the PPC’s argument being that while the Minister had approved the fast-tracking of the purchase on account of a prevailing emergency, that directive could not be equated with giving the green light to bypass the tender process. 

 Faced last week with questions pertaining to a seemingly anomalous situation pertaining to acquisition of drugs by the state (a 2017 sole-sourcing $350-odd million involving a United States company) Finance Minister Winston Jordan seemed only too eager to distance the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board (NPTAB), part of his own Ministry, from the matter declaring in essence that the Tender Administration was not about to stand in the way of the Public Health Ministry’s case for expediting the acquisition of drugs in “a do or die situation.” If one can hardly blame the Finance Minister for taking the humanitarian high road here it is worth wondering whether it is not desirable that cases for waivers of the tender process be tested for their  cogency before the open tender route is set aside. Shouldn’t the Minister of Finance himself be reasonably satisfied about the propriety of the case that is being made for sole-sourcing.? The government simply has to understand that where anomalous situations arise that might give rise to suspicions of questionable procedures underpinned by   underhand dealings it has an obligation to respond in a manner that provides persuasive answers to public enquiries or else face the reality that its actions will be viewed with a healthy measure of suspicion and that ultimately it will inevitably be answerable in the court of public opinion.

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