Top management personnel at the Gozo General Hospital (GGH) have been told to start seeking employment elsewhere, in an indication that the hospital could soon go back under government management, sources have told The Malta Independent on Sunday.
These include hospital CEO Joseph Fenech, who, this newspaper is informed, will be returning to his old government job.
Nationalist MP Chris Said said this week that Steward Health Care – the US-based company that had taken over the three privatised hospitals from Vitals Global Healthcare – will be quitting Gozo for good.
In a statement, Steward, said these claims were “purely speculative”, adding that negotiations that started last year are still ongoing. “Steward Malta reiterates its commitment to all three hospitals under its responsibility – Gozo General Hospital, Karin Grech Hospital and St Luke’s Hospital – for the benefit of its patients, staff and the communities that it serves,” it said.
In a curt reply to this newsroom, the Health Ministry said: “negotiations between the government and Steward Health Care are still ongoing.”
The ministry, however, did not expressly deny the claims that Steward will be giving up the Gozo hospital.
Sources who spoke to this newsroom pointed out that it took the company several days to react to the claims, which were first published by PN Sunday newspaper il-Mument last week.
Joe Fenech – Executive Director, Gozo General Hospital
The sources said there were several indications that the company will be relinquishing GGH, where it has missed several important milestones, including building a new 450-bed facility by June 2018.
While overall negotiations between the government and the hospitals operator are still ongoing, they have practically already agreed that GGH will go back to the state, the sources said. Steward will be retaining St Luke’s and Karin Grech hospitals in Malta.
Another “indication” that changes are afoot in Gozo is the fact that top hospital personnel are being told to start looking for new jobs. The sources said Executive Director Joe Fenech will be re-joining the public sector while other management members have been told to start looking for new jobs.
“The doctors and nurses will be retained as they will simply be transferred to the public health sector,” one source said.
The sources also said that “practically everyone at the Gozo hospital knows that Steward are finished in Gozo.”
Another “indication” that the government will be taking over the Gozo hospital was the announcement by surgeon Jo Etienne Abela, the sources added. Abela said in a Facebook post that, through an agreement reached with the Health Ministry, he will be leading a new specialised surgery clinic at GGH. “Why was the agreement reached with the ministry, and not with Steward, who are the operators of the hospital,” the sources asked. Questions have been sent to Abela.
Replying to questions by this newspaper, Abela explained why the agreement was reached with the government. “I used to work at GGH as well as Mater Dei Hospital (MDH) from 2013 to 2017. In 2017 I was formally designated as Upper Gastrointestinal and Pancreatic Consultant Surgeon at MDH. Mine is a narrow and busy speciality with referrals coming my way on a daily basis from Gozo and Malta. I have been offering to do a few sessions at GGH for the past 2 years. As a Department of Health employee, my sessions, deployment and salary are the remit of the said Department. As of this month new referrals and follow-up patients residing in Gozo will benefit from my twice-monthly out-patient clinics and a once-monthly endoscopy session at GGH (at no extra cost to the taxpayer). My slots at MDH that would have been taken up by Gozo residents are now open to Malta residents. Obviously, Steward Healthcare agreed to this arrangement.”
Abela also said that speculation that he is to become GGH CEO is purely speculative. “I confirm that I was never approached about such prospects.”
He confirmed, however, claims that he will run for the next general election on the PL ticket.
A deal marred by controversy
The hospitals privatisation controversy has been marred in controversy since the start. The government had initially awarded the concession to VGH – a company with no previous experience in the healthcare sector. The companies have been paid millions from taxpayer money but have largely failed to deliver on their contractual obligations. There have also been claims that Steward employees have inferior salaries and conditions when compared to public healthcare workers.
The VGH concession was recently slammed by the National Audit Office, which said that there was proof of collusion between the company and government representatives and that the deal was “pre-determined.” It said that VGH should have been disqualified from the Request for Proposals.
The NAO had said that it was not given access to the pre-agreement document and was told that it could not be found. The document was later located and handed over to the Auditor General.
Konrad Mizzi, who was responsible for the privatisation deal as Special Projects Minister, had insisted that he had not seen the Memorandum of Understanding and had not signed it. He called for its publication.
Robert Abela and Chris Fearne with Steward Chief Operating Officer Nadine Delicata
The relationship between Steward Health Care and the government has soured over time, and the company has been trying to secure additional funding from the government and was also requesting changes to its contract. Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne had refused both requests.
In January 2020, the company then roped in former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat in meetings it had with newly elected PM Robert Abela. The former PM’s presence at the meetings raised eyebrows. This newsroom had reported that Muscat did much of the talking during the meeting and was in favour of granting Steward its requests.
When asked about this, Muscat had refused to comment.
Robert Abela had repeatedly said that he was taking a full stocktake of the situation before taking a decision.
The Malta Independent on Sunday is informed that a meeting between Steward and PM Abela took place a few weeks ago. Health Minister Chris Fearne and Finance Minister Clyde Caruana were also present. Caruana was present not only due to his current portfolio but also because, as Abela’s former chief of staff he had attended several other meetings with the company throughout 2020. The Cabinet was recently updated on the latest developments, but no decisions have been taken yet.
Former Opposition Leader Adrian Delia is fighting a court battle to have all three hospitals returned to the state.