Blood test crisis hits provinces

SEVEN out of 10 patients in some parts of the country will soon be refused blood tests to diagnose illnesses as a result of R4-billion in bills being outstanding.

The National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) says it is owed so much that it has been forced to close its courier services that transport samples from clinics in KwaZulu-Natal to the laboratories.

With a similar fate likely for Gauteng hospitals, the service is involved in last-minute discussions there to prevent courier services being closed this week.

The two provinces collectively owe the service almost R4-billion, rendering the state laboratory service bankrupt with just enough money to pay the salaries of its 7500 staff.

The other seven provinces are servicing their bills.

A doctor at the laboratory service said up to 70% of patients needed blood tests for diagnosis or management of their illness

The doctor said “a lot of diseases don’t have specific presentations and a diagnostic test is needed” to find out what was wrong.

“We have a TB epidemic in South Africa and most TB cases need a confirmatory test as TB symptoms are very general,” he said.

The KwaZulu-Natal health department has not paid its bill in three years and owes R3-billion.

Gauteng owes R900-million and has had outstanding bills for the past six months.

But Gauteng paid R77-million last week, although the NHLS says it needs at least R200-million by tomorrow if it is to continue providing services. The NHLS has not been able to pay its own suppliers and, for example, owes just one supplier more than R100-million.

While the services will continue in laboratories this week, nurses at clinics and doctors at hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal will have to transport the samples to the labs by car.

The laboratory service has set up a hotline so doctors can contact it in case an emergency diagnoses is needed for a deadly disease.

DA Gauteng health spokesman Jack Bloom yesterday revealed the contents of a letter written by service chief executive Sagie Pillay that was sent to all NHLS staff last week telling them of the measures.

It says: “The organisation has been under severe financial pressure due to the fact that both Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces have not paid their bills.”

Pillay told staff the service had made several attempts to ensure significant payment was received from these provinces.

But these were not successful.

An insider, who did not want to be named, said Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi had been involved and had met the NHLS, but the provinces had still not settled their accounts.

Staff will not be retrenched as seven provinces still pay their bills.

Gauteng Health spokesman Simon Zwane said the non-payment was as a result of disputed matters over bills.

“We are confident that the courier services will not be stopped while these discussions continue.”

Pillay yesterday said courier services would continue for now and he was hopeful that an agreement would be reached tomorrow.

KwaZulu-Natal health spokesman Samuel Mkhwanaze did not return calls asking for comment. – Katharine Child


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