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Millions for Vitals but no change seen at hospitals

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by November 27, 2016 General

Minister Without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi with Health Minister Chris Fearne. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Several million euros in public funds are being paid out to Vitals Global Healthcare for medical services that have yet to show any sign of change, five months after the company took over the running of three hospitals.

By the end of 2016, the payment will have reached over €20 million, this newspaper is informed.

But healthcare professionals question where the money is going, as no changes can be observed in any of the three hospitals – Gozo, St Luke’s and Karen Grech.

Earlier this month, Health Minister Chris Fearne told Gozo shadow minister Chris Said, in answer to a parliamentary question, “the government is in the process of paying out a global sum to Vitals for the services rendered in 2016”.

Vitals don’t even seem to be in charge of a syringe, let alone a hospital

Asked by this newspaper to provide details of the payments made so far and for which services, a spokeswoman for Dr Fearne failed to provide them.

She said: “All current services provided by the Department of Health before are today being offered by Vitals Global Healthcare including inpatient care, pharmaceuticals and medical consumables, outpatient services, surgery and rehab care, amongst others.”

Yet “nothing has changed since June, when Vitals supposedly took over”, one senior Gozitan doctor told this newspaper. “The situation at all hospitals is exactly the same as it was then.”

Another senior doctor said: “There is the same management, the same work practices, the same medicine, the same procurement systems and the same staff.”

“No one has told us anything about any changes, and our salaries are still coming through the government system,” another medical practitioner said.

This situation was confirmed by a spokesman for the doctors’ union, the Medical Association of Malta. “We don’t know who is paying for what. The management structure has remained the same. Vitals don’t even seem to be in charge of a syringe, let alone a hospital. I would be very happy if I could tell you where the public funds are going. We don’t know, and that is why we want an investigation,” the spokesman insisted.

Both MAM and Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin are insisting on an investigation by the Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor General into the deal signed by the government.

Nurses and other healthcare employees echoed the MAM’s comments. “The only things we notice are people coming into Karen Grech to measure corridors,” a senior nurse said.

“It has now almost become a joke, as this is the only change we have seen. Otherwise, all is the same and we don’t know why taxpayer money is being channelled to Vitals.”

When asked about the amounts involved, the ministry spokeswoman reiterated Dr Fearne’s comments: “The payments being paid by the government are comparable to the recurrent expenditure previously spent on the Gozo General Hospital, St Luke’s and Karen Grech.” Dr Fearne put the figure that the government currently spends on the three hospitals at €55 million a year.

Going by that figure, the payment of over €20 million estimated by this newspaper’s source is about right, as Vitals took over running the hospitals halfway through the year.

Vitals is owned by a complicated commercial structure based in Singapore and the British Virgin Islands. Asked how much it had received from the government so far, a Vitals spokeswoman said: “VGH is being paid for services as outlined in the service agreement signed with the government.”

She said the company had so far invested €25 million in the project but she did not provide any details when asked to list these investments. When pressed, she said that most of the investment had gone into “significant planning and preparatory work”.

The 30-year agreement with Vitals was negotiated by former health minister Konrad Mizzi following a request for proposals issued by the government’s privatisation unit.

However, it later emerged that the government had already been in discussions with the private operators before the official request was launched. Dr Fearne, at the time parliamentary secretary, distanced himself from the agreement, saying his only input was on the medical side.

All is the same and we don’t know why taxpayer money is being channelled to Vitals

However, since he became minister after the portfolio was removed from Dr Mizzi due to the Panama Papers scandal, it is Dr Fearne’s task to see through the implementation of the contract.

When the contract was published, about 60 pages of the text were omitted, including all the crucial elements relating to the financing of the project and government payments.

It is not yet known whether Vitals has managed to raise the €220 million it needs to carry out the investment promised in its contract with the government.

The nurses’ union and the General Workers’ Union have not signalled any significant concerns over the deal.

New chief operating officer for Vitals

The management structure of Vitals Global Healthcare has been further strengthened with the addition of Eric Buehrens as Chief Operating Officer, the company has said.

The VGH senior management team is led by CEO Armin Ernst, a Harvard-trained and globally renowned pulmonologist with seven textbooks and over 200 manuscripts to his credit.

He has held clinical and administrative leadership roles in major academic medical centres in the US. Assisting him is Mr Buehrens, who joined the healthcare industry over 20 years ago.

He has held several leadership roles at a major Harvard Medical School teaching hospital and within other healthcare systems.

Mark Lisher joins VGH as chief financial officer, after occupying a number of director and CFO positions in contracting, program management and finance in various sectors and industries. A qualified accountant, he has worked in a variety of positions within the NHS in the UK.

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