By Poly Pantelides
THE HEALTH minister defended himself yesterday against accusations by opposition AKEL that he had sidelined his own permanent secretary in order to take control of policy relating to sending patients abroad for treatment.
Over the years, the auditor-general has criticised the ministry’s policy of spending hundreds of thousands of euros in commission to “middlemen” acting on behalf of hospitals in Israel, rather than negotiating directly with the hospitals.
In 2008 for example, a company representing an Israeli hospital got over €300,000 in commission alone and in 2010 some 410 patients were sent to Israel, according to Auditor-general Chrystalla Georghadji.
So far this year, some 78 patients have gone to Israel, health minister Petros Petrides said. Most were patients who had been sent abroad before a change in policy, and needed to continue follow up checks with their doctors, and 26 cases involved necessary heart surgery for children. No middlemen were used, Petrides said.
The minister said he chose not to give the health ministry’s permanent secretary Dionysis Mavronicolas jurisdiction in handling patients’ treatment abroad simply because Mavronicolas was busy implementing the ministry’s obligations agreed with international lenders in the Memorandum of Understanding.
Former health minister with the previous administration Stavros Malas had pushed for better use of local doctors in the private sector and for bringing in foreign specialists to reduce costs, as well as moving away from the more expensive Israeli hospitals to ones in the EU. Malas, who yesterday joined AKEL MP Irene Charalambidou in criticising the current minister for sidelining his permanent secretary, said that as minister he himself had taken steps to collaborate with Mavronicolas, who “by law is the official checking on all health ministry expenditure.”
“This policy led to a dramatic fall of expenses… to €25 million in 2012 from €42 million in 2010,” Malas said. What Malas did not mention however, was that the health ministry continued using middlemen under his watch with the auditor-general pointing out that in the beginning of 2012 most of the patients sent to Israel were referred via middlemen.
Charalambidou accused Petrides of dodging her questions by not referring to the health ministry’s previous expenses in relation to the matter. The expenses from 2008 until this year – most made when Charalambidou’s party was in power – come to some €150 million.
Petrides had said he was not in a position to criticise previous policies of sending patients abroad, adding there were relevant institutions to address such issues. He did not explain why he –as health minister could not comment – and Charalambidou said that as a member of parliament the minister should hand over data to her about who was sent where and for what reason.
In 2011, the health ministry paid middlemen over €9.5 million to send patients in Israel. There was no breakdown of how much commission was paid. In the case of one company, a health ministry official advised it in 2009 to stop flagging in their invoices how much commission they charged, Georghadji said in her 2011 report.