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Privatisation gone mad

Our front-page story today strips away the government’s fig leaf over the agreement it struck with Vitals Global Healthcare for the running of three public hospitals. It can no longer pretend that the deal was primarily motivated by the public interest.

The report, and those we and other media outlets have been running, lay bare the true intentions of those who entered the agreement: the main aim was for private individuals to profit handsomely off the taxpayer’s back, while passing the 30-year concession off as some innovative way to improve the healthcare system and asking for gratitude in return, to boot.

The duplicity is astounding. The government is playing Russian roulette with the people’s money. It has poured tens of millions into the black hole of a non-delivering company and stands to lose tens of millions more if Vitals – and now presumably Steward, the company that has taken over the concession – was to trigger one of the contract clauses we make public today.

The government has done all this and tried to keep it secret. It is difficult to see how the people responsible for this contract can justify it; how they can consider their position tenable after a deceit of this magnitude and after squandering and risking the people’s honest earnings in this manner.

The situation is simply indefensible. We await Joseph Muscat’s response and attempted justification in his Sunday speech today. That’s besides a plethora of other facts that he still needs to provide answers to.

The people behind the deal – namely Muscat, Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri – stand guilty of going behind the people’s back to deliberately strike a deal that betrays the public interest and plays into the hands of private interests.

All this would be unacceptable if it were a public private partnership for the maintenance of flower beds. What makes it utterly immoral is that it was for the provision of an essential health service to the community. The free health service is financed by public money and this puts onerous obligations on the government to ensure decisions that affect the health of the nation are taken exclusively in the best interests of the public.

Instead, the opposite has happened.

The reports on VGH’s poor state of financial health, which started trickling out last year, coupled with the mystery over the ultimate beneficial owners, points to a far from rigorous business assessment having been carried out.

Indeed, this was a case of ‘how not to privatise’. Where, for example, was the Privatisation Unit? It would appear that its role has been abolished for selected projects and replaced by direct negotiations conducted by politicians and their chosen consultants.

In the past, the unit gave the privatisation process a hallmark of objectivity. The role of politicians was limited to providing strategic direction and did not involve their evaluation of the economic aspects of services or assets transferred to private third parties. This objectivity has been thrown out of the window in the privatisation of the management of the three hospitals.

The doctors’ union has insisted that the government should ask the MFSA to immediately investigate the audited accounts of VGH. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee asked the National Audit Office to review the VGH contract more than a year ago. One can understand the limitations of resources in the NAO. But it would not be the first time that the importance of issues of national concern convinced the government to entrust investigations to reputable and independent audit firms. This is what should happen with VGH.

The Nationalist MEP Roberta Metsola has gone one further and is demanding a police investigation, saying the revelations and implications are now so serious as to warrant their immediate intervention. Meanwhile the PN parliamentary group has filed a judicial protest over Vitals’ failure to observe its contractual obligations and called on the Lands Department to take legal steps to recover State property. Both are reasonable demands given the circumstances.

Ultimately the national health system belongs to the public. The government is just the steward of the system and not its owner. It has failed in its obligation to ensure the partial privatisation of the health service safeguards the public interest. It must admit its failure and take responsibility for it.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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