Health in R14bn lawsuits crisis

Eastern Cape Health MEC Dr Phumza Dyantyi  Picture: Supplied
Eastern Cape Health MEC Dr Phumza Dyantyi
Picture: Supplied

Unprecedented debt forces department to scrap 2 000 jobs

The beleaguered Eastern Cape Department of Health is facing an unprecedented crisis with R14-billion in medico-legal claims against it, forcing it to scrap 2 000 jobs from its employment budget. It has also racked up unpaid debts of more than R1-billion.

The department is also facing the sale of its Bhisho head office on Friday if it fails to pay millions of rands in damages.

Its attorney has appealed to lawyers who won R80-million in damages against the department to give it time until the new financial year – starting next month – to pay.

Eastern Cape Health MEC Dr Pumza Dyantyi told the standing committee on appropriations in parliament last week that the provincial department had accrued unpaid debts of R1.4-billion.

It had also been forced to reduce the number of vacant posts by 1 954 as the medico-legal claims were being paid from the employment budget.

In a letter written to several attorneys looking for money, a senior manager in the department’s legal directorate, Mlungisi Mlambo, asked the attorneys to hold off on the sale of the head office building in Bhisho scheduled for Friday.

He said it was unnecessary to sell the building as they would undertake to pay before the end of next month.

Mlambo said the department could no longer pay their debtors as they had reached the ceiling for payments.

Provincial health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo said the department had also won a court case against the sheriff of the high court for the illegal seizure of health department property. “They even took personnel files,” he said. Kupelo said existing court orders had exceeded what was available in the budget.

It also transpired that not all the court orders had been delivered on time to the department.

The amount of pending orders is an estimated R80-million.

Kupelo said there had been some procedural problems with the seizure of some of the department’s assets – and these were successfully challenged in the Mthatha High Court.

“The issue of the Department of Health being a target of litigation is a national issue which the finance minister [Pravin Gordhan] has pronounced on. It’s not unique to this province,” he said.

“In some cases, there is evidence of collusion between lawyers and department staff. We also see the theft of patient files.”

The DA’s Celeste Barker said the real tragedy was “deaths, disfigurement and endless suffering of patients with no recourse”.

On Monday, the Law Society of South Africa voiced concern about allegations against attorneys during the joint sitting of parliament’s standing committee on appropriations and the portfolio committee on health.

“We are seeking a meeting with the joint committees to discuss what the society views to be unsubstantiated and sensationalist allegations against attorneys with regard to medical negligence claims,” Law Society co-chairman Mvuzo Notyesi said.

“Attorneys cannot be blamed for simply carrying out their duties on behalf of victims who have been wronged.”

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