Focus/Spotlight

A dirty deal?

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

The deal struck between the Government and owners of the Dr. Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (NFTH) in Malabe was questioned as the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) probed irregularities under the current Government, claiming that the NFTH was still a private hospital.

Ministry of Health Secretary Wasantha Perera had revealed that the Government had been paying off NFTH’s bank loans – amounting to Rs. 2.5 billion – together with hospital expenses, even though the hospital had not yet been acquired by the Government.

Following the revelation made by the Ministry Secretary, questions regarding the ownership status of the hospital were raised, as it is still privately owned, even though the agreement to transfer its ownership to the Government was signed by President Maithripala Sirisena in 2017.

Another political drama

The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) stated that only a letter of interest to transfer ownership of the hospital to the Government was signed. He also stated that the hospital owners could withdraw at anytime.

Before the property is acquired by the Government, it should be gazetted and approved by Parliament, GMOA Assistant Secretary Dr. Haritha Aluthge said.
However, Health Ministry Secretary Perera had informed the PCoI that NFTH could be acquired by the Government only after 10 years , since Cabinet approval was given for the hospital to be brought under the privately owned SAITM for the said time period.

As the circumstances under which the Government agreed to make payments towards the loan taken by the hospital, before the transfer, remain unknown, The Sunday Morning directed the relevant questions to Ministry Secretary Perera for clarification.

She said the media incorrectly reported the statement she made to the commission.
“I raised the issue with the commission, and apparently they had issued a revised press release.

“I strongly believe that a commission cannot issue a press release like that. I don’t know whether the commission takes responsibility over the statement or not. I am yet to receive a reply from the commission,” Perera stressed.

The contradictory statements gave rise to confusion. As such, we sought clarification on the matter. Perera then repeated that what was carried in the papers was wrong.
“The papers and electronic media incorrectly reported my statement at the commission,” she continued.

Upon attempts to discover what Perera claims she had said at the commission, she responded: “This is a presidential commission, and I don’t want to talk about it more.

But a very wrong picture was given by them to the media.”

Sale to private party

In the meantime, GMOA Spokesman Dr. Naveen Soysa revealed that they had received some information regarding a plan to sell NFTH to a local private company.

“We have requested information from the company registrar to confirm whether they received such a request to transfer the ownership of the hospital,” Dr. Soysa said.

In a similar incident last year, the JVP raised questions in Parliament over the newspaper advertisements published to sell NFTH, which was taken over by the Government in 2017. Further, JVP MP Dr. Nalinda Jayatissa demanded to know how a government-run hospital could be sold by advertising in the newspaper.

The JVP then asked why the Government spent Rs. 300 million a month for the NFTH to continue its operations, and how advertisements were published out of the blue.

Meanwhile, the GMOA also requested the Secretary to the Ministry to stop granting funds to the NFTH. A separate letter had been sent to the Auditor General’s Department requesting a proper investigation into the issue and to suggest necessary recommendations.

In February, Cabinet approval had been granted to continue the operations of the NFTH as the Colombo East Teaching Hospital. Accordingly, it will operate in parallel with the Colombo East Base Hospital (Mulleriyawa Hospital).

Approval was granted based on a proposal made by subject Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne. The proposal was to continue the activities of the NFTH as a line hospital of the Government, similar to the Sri Jayewardenepura General Hospital.

The hospital, which is valued at Rs. 3.5 billion, is equipped with all the required facilities for a teaching hospital. It is on an area of 180,600 square feet and has been built according to the green concept. The hospital consists of one four-storey and two eight-storey buildings.

All attempts made to contact Dr. Neville Fernando were futile.