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Audit office says HIO chairman does have conflict of interest (update 2)

thomas atoniou
Thomas Antoniou

Wading into the Health Insurance Organisation (HIO) dispute, the audit office said on Thursday that in its opinion HIO chairman Thomas Antoniou does have a conflict of interest because his wife provides services for the general health scheme (Gesy).

In its announcement, the office attached a letter on the matter that it had sent to the health ministry on Wednesday – further recommending that it be referred to the council of ministers. This was retweeted by auditor general Odysseas Michaelides.

The letter has also been sent to the committee that examines potential conflict of interest among public officials.

This is just the latest twist in a long-running row on the composition of the HIO board – which overseas Gesy – and whether members have a conflict of interest.

The HIO board has denied this is the case, but on Tuesday the committee on potential conflict of interest said it was looking into the matter.

Antoniou, who has headed the HIO for ten years, has placed his resignation at the disposal of the president who has asked for the opinion of the attorney general and the committee.

On Thursday, he said he would be deciding on his future actions in the next few days and spoke of unfair attacks which had extended to his family.

But the auditor general’s office denied the issue was personal or political but concerned the legality of the composition of the HIO board, and by extension its decisions.

In the letter, the auditor general’s office argued that as Antoniou’s wife was contracted with the HIO since December 2020, this automatically affected the family income, creating a conflict of interest that could not be overcome by Antoniou not attending specific HIO board meetings.

The office claimed that Antoniou himself appears to admit that the HIO did not request a review on the matter and neither was the council of ministers informed of the development.

The audit office also hit back at points raised by Antoniou, namely that a similar – but different – case arose in November, when a complaint was lodged that the partner of another member of the HIO board may have led to a conflict of interest.

But the office mocked Antoniou’s claim that the HIO sought the legal opinion of the HIO legal department at the time, dismissing it as inadequate – belittling it as an HIO employee issuing a legal review of itself.

The office further claimed that the two cases are different as the partner was a dentist who was not signed up with Gesy. It added that questions are raised as to why outside opinions were not sought at that time on Antoniou’s case, and why the health minister was not informed of the development.

The audit office on Thursday said that part of its reasoning to make the letter public was to address concerns raised by Antoniou. The office noted in the preface of the letter that Antoniou just a few days ago had said that checks are welcome, but later changed tune and decried ‘open attacks’ from institutional bodies.

Antoniou also came in for harsh criticism for having emphasised that he received no salary for his role as the head of the HIO, with the audit office sarcastically pointing out that those are the conditions of the appointment – the same being true for Cyta and the EAC.

“We’re not sure what remuneration Antoniou appears to think that he has given up,” the office said, noting that he served as a non-executive head of a semi-governmental organisation. As such, and according to a decision taken by the council of ministers, such positions are only compensated with €100 per meeting and an annual allowance of €1,000.

“It’s a fact that chairmen of such roles often give up a significant amount of time which is not compensated, but that does not entitle them to a salary and nor does it place them above the law,” the office said.

But Antoniou countered that the issue was primarily political, not legal. Asked by the Cyprus News Agency to comment on the audit office’s announcement, he suggested the auditor general contact the law office or a lawyer.

“I do not know if Odysseas Michaelides is a lawyer or is authorised to decide on conflict of interest or to issue legal opinions and unilaterally judge and condemn,” Antoniou said.

The HIO saga has dominated the news cycle over the past few weeks; following a series of controversies, claims and counterclaims, along with senior resignations.

The embattled organisation has been rocked by a flurry of scandals, ranging from the auditor general issuing a scathing report earlier this year and the most recent row over the appointment of Petros Agathangelou to the HIO board.

The committee charged with investigating potential conflict of interest among public officials was initially tasked to look into Agathangelou’s case, amid widespread criticism that he was unfit for the role; with detractors pointing to him being the president of the Cyprus Medical Association.

But on Tuesday the committee announced that it was switching course, as it was to widen the scope of its investigation into the board more broadly – and not just into Agathangelou, whose appointment had been rescinded.

The committee said that Antoniou is being investigated over conflict of interest as his wife is a health services provider working with Gesy. It is also looking into other members of the board.

It did not elaborate, but the private doctors’ association had raised potential conflict of interest issues for trade unions – which have pharmacies – and patients’ organisations groups – which offer health services, which are also represented on the HIO board.

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