Lives of thousands of people in Phalombe are in danger following an impasse in negotiations between the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the Archdiocese of Blantyre over Holy Family Private Hospital which closed its doors to patients.
The church a week ago closed its door to patients served by the hospital at government’s expense in the absence of a public district hospital in Phalombe.
Acting Secretary for Health Chimwemwe Banda told Weekend Nation on Wednesday that the ministry had squared a K24 million outstanding payment to the hospital but, the Archdiocese has refused to resume services to the communities until all other issues they presented to government are exhausted.
Issues not resolved
Contents of a letter from the Blantyre Archdiocese to MoH, dated January 20 2017 raises the issue of an unpaid sum of K43 032 430 from October to December 2016.
Head of the Catholic Health Commission, Father Alfred Nsope claims that MoH further owes the hospital K14 million.
The fact that the two sides must agree on a new monthly and annual ceiling for payments before a new agreement is signed.
But Banda blamed the hospital for what she described as ‘delays’ in billing government.
Banda said: “We signed an agreement that the government will be paying the hospital K8 million each month. This means that every month the hospital has to reconcile their books and invoice us. But to our surprise, they [hospital] have not been sending any invoices since October 2016. The next thing we see is a letter [informing us] that they are suspending their services, saying we owe them K24 million. We are not disputing it but it was not our fault.”
According to Banda, the Ministry of Health has since settled the bill in question and was expecting the hospital to resume the services as soon as possible.
She added that the ministry had dealt with problems of funding that had also previously been a common characteristic in many Christian Health Association of Malawi (Cham) facilities.
Banda said: “At the moment we do not have any problems with other privately owned hospitals across the country.”
But Father Nsope said, in an interview on Thursday, that the hospital does not have resources and cannot take people in.
Said Nsope: “Our resources are depleted. We are not government, we are a church. We do not want to open a death trap and that is why we are saying that until all issues are cleared we will not open up to government funded patients.”
He said he was disappointed with the way the Ministry of Health is handling the issue by preempting discussions by going to the press over the matter before the discussions are exhausted.
Phalombe district commissioner Harry Phiri on Tuesday confirmed, in an interview, he was aware of the stalemate between the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the Archdiocese of Blantyre, who own Holy Family.
Phiri said: “It has come to our attention that the owners of the hospital wrote to inform government of their decision to suspend the free services to rural communities because of outstanding payments. However, as council, there is not much that we can do since we are not part of the contract between the hospital and the MoH.”
He said following the suspension of free services, the district health office was instead referring all critical cases to Chiradzulu or Mulanje district hospitals, and Zomba Central hospital, depending on the location and gravity of the cases.
Local people interviewed in Phalombe on Tuesday claimed the development has left a lot of patients helpless because of the long distances they have to be taken for referral treatment due to transport problems in the district.
When we visited the hospital on Tuesday morning, there were few patients seeking treatment at the hospital from the local community and people living close to the facility said people had resigned to fate since the decision was made a fortnight ago.
Stanley Maulidi, from GVH Bwanaisa under T/A Mkhumba said the suspension of service was a blow to the people of the area who cannot afford to pay for services at the hospital.
“It is a hopeless situation as the hospital has put its foot down not to allow patients on government ticket anymore especially critical cases. As a result, patients that have been referred to other hospitals have to wait for the availability of transport. Even when transport is available, most of the times they have to wait so that there are more patients to fill the ambulance,” he said.
Monica Maideni, whose relative had to be transported to Zomba, complained of the risks patients have to go through and the trauma guardians endure during processing of referrals.
She said: “You can imagine what we had to go through, waiting for numbers to fill the ambulance while our patient was in critical condition. We pleaded with the officials but they said they could do nothing against policy. And there is the problem of maternal cases, especially those that have experienced complications. Any delay in having them attended to puts lives of women and babies at greater risk.”
Parliamentarian for Phalombe North East Denis Namachekecha echoed the concerns of the people.
“As people’s representatives, we are very concerned at the turn of events. Apparently, the disagreements are coming out of issues to do with calculations. While there is a fixed sum that the government has to pay, it looks like the hospital has been claiming for higher numbers in patients’ traffic. Unfortunately, in between this, we are losing lives and that is our main worry. We tried to intervene but the hospital owners have refused,” he said. n