Premier overrules MEC and orders Bay facilities stay open
AFTER months of controversy and heartbreak caused by the Department of Social Development, Eastern Cape premier Phumulo Masualle decided yesterday that the contract for Life Esidimeni to run the only two fully state-funded frail care centres in Port Elizabeth will be extended by one year.
This follows a firm response from Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to halt the proposed move of Port Elizabeth frail care patients to non-government organisations (NGOs) which triggered an uproar last year.
The premier’s announcement represents a complete U-turn following Social Development MEC Nancy Sihlwayi’s bull-headed insistence 24 hours earlier that she would go ahead with the controversial plan to move frail care patients to NGOs despite a damning health ombudsman report on the deaths of mentally ill patients in Gauteng.
Yesterday’s decision followed what Masualle’s spokeswoman, Nonala Ndlozu, described as a “hectic cabinet meeting” that lasted until after 5pm.
“The premier will confirm that he had a conversation with the national Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, and that they have decided the best approach will be to extend the [Life Esidimeni] contract,” Ndlozu, said.
“In the next year, they will find the best way forward for both the department and the frail care patients.”
Health ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba found earlier this week that the Gauteng health department was negligent when it moved 1 900 patients from Life Healthcare facilities to private homes run by unlicensed NGOs, calling the plan reckless, unwise and flawed.
He found that the Gauteng move had led to the deaths of at least 94 patients.
The report led to the resignation of Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu.
There was an outcry in Port Elizabeth last year when the provincial Department of Social Development announced plans to move 240 patients from the Algoa and Lorraine frail care centres, run by Life Esidimeni – a subsidiary of Life Healthcare – and rehouse them with NGOs.
Motsoaledi expressed anger yesterday at Sihlwayi’s plan to press ahead with moving the patients. Earlier in the day, Sihlwayi’s spokesman, Mzukisi Solani, had sent out a statement indicating that the MEC was intent on forging ahead with those plans.
A meeting of organisations interested in providing the service was scheduled for 10am at the Bhisho Youth Care Centre.
On Wednesday, Sihlwayi told The Herald: “Some of the people in these centres are ill.
“I am not going to pay for ill people.
“They are even giving them oxygen that my department must pay for. “My budget isn’t for oxygen. “If people are sick, if they need a doctor or a physiotherapist, they must go to the state hospital.
“This frail care is only for the poor and the vulnerable. It is for people who have nobody
to look after them.”
But yesterday afternoon – in a radio interview – Motsoaledi said both he and Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini had received letters expressing deep concern about the plan to move the patients to facilities run by NGOs.
“The Minister of Social Development said she had sent Deputy Minister Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu to talk to the MEC [Sihlwayi] and to ask her, ‘Please, do not go through with it’.
“I asked the minister [Dlamini] if she had seen The Herald [yesterday].
“She said no – it [the move to NGOs] can’t happen. The deputy minister went there and said it can’t happen,” Motsoaledi said.
“Ten minutes ago, I asked Dlamini again to write a letter and phone premier Phumulo Masualle to say: ‘Stop this. It must never go on’.”
Dlamini’s spokeswoman, Lumka Oliphant, did not respond to several phone calls and messages seeking comment yesterday.
Solani, in a statement issued late last night, said nothing about the extension of the contract.
“MEC Sihlwayi continues to engage with various stakeholders, including her national counterparts, in appraising the process,” he said.
“She agrees that there can never be any finalisation on this matter until all the stakeholders and families are consulted.
“This is also about respecting the necessary sensitivity that this matter carries.”
On behalf of the families of patients in the two Port Elizabeth centres, Gerhardt Loock said the premier’s decision was excellent news.
“They finally started listening to us,” Loock said. “Our hearts go out to the families of the people who died in Gauteng.
“Their sadness really put our issue in the public domain. “They cleared the way for us. “It is a great victory for civil society. “It is a great example of how the constitution helps people to enforce their rights.
“We would love to talk to the [Social Development] Department and present the side of the patients,” Loock said.
“All the statements from Sihlwayi showed that she did not understand the position that the patients were in.”
DA MPL Kobus Botha said the party welcomed the decision.
“It paves the way for proper interdepartmental planning to take place now,” he said.
“This will hopefully result in a smooth transition for frail care patients.” — Estelle Ellis firstname.lastname@example.org