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Two unacceptable deals - George Debono

It can be rightly said that Malta’s health service is the only government institution in the land that regularly receives tokens of appreciation from clients for the high standard of healthcare delivered at our hospitals. This usually comes in the form of letters of gratitude published in the print media.

Malta has always ranked high among the world’s health systems.

Despite the odds it faces through inadequate funding and a shortage of beds, our healthcare has consistently maintained a high standard of service, with free healthcare for all being offered at the point of delivery. This functions seamlessly alongside a private healthcare system where fees for private health are largely met by personal health insurance policies.

Now all this stands to be lost.

Instead of allocating more badly needed State funds to national healthcare, a sector that should receive the highest priority, the government bypassed local medical expertise and entered into a grotesque financial deal with an obscure commercial company to which it intends to sell a 30-year concession on three prime hospitals.

Until a short time ago, the public remained largely unaware of what lay behind the handover of the control of the three public hospitals to entrepreneurs. The Times of Malta is to be congratulated for its full, detailed exposure of the legally dubious deals that lie behind the decision to give the three hospitals to rapacious foreign entrepreneurs.

If this deal is allowed to go through, our excellent healthcare service, painstakingly built over many years, is set to degenerate into dirty ‘Big Business’.

Who the ultimate owners will be still remains a mystery. It would appear that in the future, our health will either remain in the hands of the obscure Bluestone/Vitals Global Healthcare consortium or signed over to Steward Health Care, a ruthless US business concern.

The wheeling and dealing behind this saga mostly happened in secret, behind our backs. It has now become clear that this is not the way to go.

To hand the healthcare of citizens to a commercial entity is irresponsible and can only be regarded as an abject failure of health policy

In simple terms, any service provided by Vitals (or Steward) over the years will ultimately cost the taxpayer significantly more than if the government had funded it in the first place.

The ultimate increase in the cost of privatisation has been estimated to be as high as 40 per cent in the UK, which is faced with a crisis as a result of the bankruptcy of one of its major outsourcing companies.

The increased cost of privatised or outsourced care may, furthermore, result in less funds being available for other essential elements of government health- or social care for those who need it most.

This will likely affect people with disabilities, the chronically sick and the aged.

They will go to the bottom of the pile.

If we allow Vitals or Steward to get away with this deal and take over the three hospitals, we will be the ultimate losers.

We will open ourselves to being systematically overcharged for at least 30 years.

This arrangement will simply turn our sick patients in need of hospital treatment into cash cows to generate dividends for the shareholders of a foreign company for at least the next 30 years.

This is quite unacceptable.

A national health service should receive the top priority from any civilised government. To hand the healthcare of citizens to a commercial entity is irresponsible and can only be regarded as an abject failure of health policy.

The only way out of this mess is to scrap the contract with Vitals.

Even if the government has to buy its way out of this disastrous agreement, taxpayers’ money will have been put to good use for a lesson learned.

George Debono is a retired doctor with a special interest in health and environment matters.

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