MaltaToday | 03 August 2008

EDITORIAL | Sunday, 03 August 2008

Spending money where it is not needed

Small wonder Mater Dei has become synonymous with reckless spending and government mismanagement. The latest news is that Prime Minister Gonzi issued a direct order worth close to €2 million to a private security firm, at a time when:
a) the maximum limit for a direct order is under €50,000 (but then, again this proviso has been flouted so often you could almost say it is a standing joke)
b) there were already 50 public sector workers employed as security guards at St luke’s hospital, but these were unaccountably omitted from the migration process to Mater Dei
c) The same 50 former guards will be retained by government and redeployed elsewhere, their salaries added to the €2 million contract in the growing list of unnecessary expenses accrued on account of Mater Dei;
e) Group 4, the company to benefit from the €2 million contract, happens to also own Parksec, which won the contract to manage the hospital’s carpark, and finally;
f) Parksec has been compensated by government to the tune of €487,000 a year for Gonzi’s decison to lower the parking rates, after a public outcry last year, and had its €325,000 concession fee waived.
These revelations ought to bring home the true extent of mismanagement at Mater Dei: the hospital which cost €600 million and whose maintenance cost has yet to be reliably quantified.
But apart from the unnecessary expense, this contract also forces us to revisit the popular perception of Mater Dei as a “state of the art” hospital. We have repeatedly been told that apart from the medical equipment and luxury items such as satellite TV, part of the €600 million had been invested precisely in security features... for instance, doors which open only by means of a personal identity tag, ensuring that access is limited only to hospital staff. With this in mind, one would have thought the new hospital would cost less to secure than St Luke’s. But instead, it has cost considerably more. Why?
The question assumes greater relevance when one also considers the overall financial state of the entire health sector. Former health minister Louis Deguara had spent almost 10 years harping on the unsustainability of the national health service. More recently, the government had to be arm-wrestled into a pre-electoral agreement with the Medical Association of Malta, giving doctors a much-needed pay-rise in order to stem a medical brain drain. Other sectors of society have not been so lucky – university lecturers, for example, are still awaiting a collective agreement of their own. In these and other cases, the official excuse is always that the spirit is willing, but the nation’s coffers are weak.
From this perspective, government’s decision to award a private company with a €2 million contract for no particular reason – added, of course, to the money already lavishly spent on the same firm to manage a carpark – appears doubly insensitive to the country’s needs.
Surely all this money could have been better spent improving the standards of primary healthcare.
After all, the government has only just discovered that this sector is absolutely crucial to reducing overcrowding, to the extent that the Health Ministry is now running a campaign to stop the current mass influx at the Emergency Department. And yet, the country’s health centres are insufficient to meet the demand currently being met by the E&A department at Mater Dei. So why not invest more in primary healthcare, and less on unnecessary and undeserving private sector give-aways?
The money could also have gone towards giving the paramedical staff a revision package to match that awarded to the doctors, with a view to addressing the hospital’s growing haemorrhage of human resources. At a stretch it could even have been utilised to improve existing services, and to strengthen certain important but strangely under-equipped departments: for instance, by purchasing more scanning equipment, so crucial for preventive medicine. But it seems that these investments shall have to wait until such time as the government can afford to spend money where it is actually needed. In the meantime, there is always that little extra money that can be spent on dubious initiatives, all of which seem at a glance to benefit the private sector, leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill.
All things told, this is not what we expected when we were promised “a safe pair of hands.”

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