The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) says it's ready to litigate against the Gauteng Health Department should it not clear its outstanding debt to suppliers by the end of this week. The TAC adds that the closure of health laboratories in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal has severely impacted on people who are HIV-positive and those with TB.
Chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign, TAC, Nonkosi Khumalo says the closure of health laboratory services impacts on patients on Anti-retroviral treatment (ARVs) and those who need to be tested for TB. Blood tests are not being done due to the closures. Khumalo says some health care facilities are unable to initiate new patients on ARV treatment because they can't get their blood tests to laboratories.
"People have been calling our offices and we have been to some of the sites that have challenges, like Kaalfontein clinic in Tembisa, Eastbank clinic in Alexandra and ART clinic in Edenvale. These are clinics that started saying to us: 'We are just not coping because we can't do laboratory tests, we can't initiate people on treatment unless we know what their CD4 counts are, we can't screen for TB because we won't get the results'," Khumalo says.
The National Health Laboratory Service, NHLS, is owed about R2 billion. The Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal Health Departments owe R1.7billion collectively. About 30 of its sites have already shut down. The Health Department has so far committed to clearing all outstanding debt by June this year. Khumalo says the crisis needs to be sorted out now.
"We are at the moment considering litigation. There are discussions with Section 27 who are our attorneys and will be our attorneys of record if nothing happens by Friday. TAC is ready to litigate on an urgent basis and get a proper plan. An answer saying by June is not good enough. Something has to happen and it has to happen now. We are definitely litigating. This has been going on forever. We didn't just find out about it", says Khumalo.
There are currently more than 200 NHLS labs across the country. CEO Dr Sagie Pillay says the body has had to take drastic measures to centralise the facilities because of these closures.
"We are consolidating sites. We're taking three or four labs and consolidating it into a single site. Partly as a cost saving measure for us, so we can contain the current creditor crisis. We owe our creditors R800million. In January, this year, we looked at several sites in Gauteng and KZN and are in the process of shutting them down. The plan is to move staff from those sites to the centralised facility", says Pillay.
The NHLS is key in making the right diagnosis of patients, so doctors can initiate the necessary treatment. Dr Pillay says the absence of these labs in hospitals will ultimately delay the service to the public.
"The specimen that should be picked up at 8 a.m. gets picked up at 10 a.m. and that is going to contribute to delays. We try to minimise them, but the easier way to do so is pay your bills", he says.
In a desperate attempt to restore health services, a group of senior doctors and professors met early this week with senior officials of the National Health Department, including the Director-General. In a letter addressed to the health department's officials, doctors have requested urgent intervention in the restoration of laboratory services, access to all essential medicines, staff shortages and the rationalisation of hospital budgets.
The concerned doctors say the unavailability of critical medicines and essential tools hinders them from providing quality health care to the public. Health Department officials have committed themselves to restoring services by the end of this week.
Meanwhile, some companies affiliated to the South African Medical Devices Industry (SAMED) are in the process of embarking on litigation against the Health Department to force it to pay money owed to them. SAMED is owed about R400 milliom.
"A number of companies are in the process of embarking on litigation. We have consulted with legal counsel. What we are doing is putting together some guidance for those members in terms of what their rights would be from a legal perspective and we are going to supply them with that this week", says Tanya Vogt, SAMED's Chief Operations Officer.
Four of SAMED's companies have completely stopped supplies to close to a dozen hospitals including, Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital, Pholosong, Tambo Memorial and Sebokeng Hospitals. Companies have stopped supplying monitoring devices, nuclear medicines, diagnostic equipment and maintenance, respectively.