Unforgivable: MEC’s ‘reckless, unwise, flawed’ decision linked to patient deaths

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As national health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba reported yesterday in Pretoria on the deaths of 94 mentally ill and mentally impaired patients, their crying relatives heard his chilling tale of a government health disaster

He tore apart a decision by the Gauteng health department that caused 1317 patients to be moved from Life Esidimeni care homes to 27 unlicensed NGOs – at which scores died.

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These are the details of the 38 of 94 patients who died after former MEC for health Qedani Mahlangu ordered their transfer from Life Esidimeni to unregistered and ill-equipped NGOs. Details of the other 56 are not available. Graphic: RUBY GAY

Most of them died at only five of the NGOs.

In one instance, Makgoba said, it had taken five months for a family to be told of the death of their relative.

Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu – who lied to Makgoba during his inquiry – has resigned.

Makgoba said: “Mahlangu’s fingerprints were peppered” throughout the project.

Her decision to move the patients was “reckless, unwise, flawed with inadequate planning”.

“How could Mahlangu not know how many people had died?” he asked.

When she said that 36 patients had died the true figure was 77, he said.

Makgoba said the health department’s head, Barney Selebano, and Makgabo Manamela, director of mental health services, had lied, tampered with evidence and covered up their huge, fatal blunder.

Manamela had signed the licences giving the so-called NGOs authority to accept patients knowing that she did not have the authority to do so.

It was the prerogative of her boss, Selebano.

When Selebano realised he had been caught out by Makgoba’s investigators, he tried to collect all the licences illegally signed by Manamela from the 27 NGOs and replace them with valid ones, Makgoba found.

“Fraud!” shouted Mark Heywood of the Treatment Action Campaign when he heard about it.

Christine Nxumalo, who lost her sister, Virginia Machpela, feels little gratification at the resignation of Mahlangu.

“She has been lying all this time. She lied and lied,” Nxumalo said.

“After all the crap she gave us, the attitude she gave us and the arrogance she gave us. She said she visited the patients. She didn’t. She lied.

“And now to just resign the day before [the report was released]. She wasn’t thinking about us, the families or the patients. She was thinking about covering herself.

“She needs God in her life. I don’t know how she sleeps every day.”

Gauteng Premier David Makura apologised to the families yesterday.

“I deeply regret the tragic loss of so many lives under the care of our provincial government as a result of officials in the Gauteng department of health.”

But the families want criminal charges brought against the officials and the owners of the facilities at which people died.

Andrew Pietersen, of the Family Committee of Esidimeni Patients, said: “We have lots of people who lost their loved ones. This is not really closure. The MEC resigning is not enough. We wanted her to be fired, which would have carried more punch.”

The monetary cost of this scandal is still being calculated.

It has become evident that a policy designed to save money cost taxpayers a fortune more.

Mahlangu had said she wanted to save R10000 per patient per year, or more than R200-million annually.

Makgoba said the province was spending R320 a day on each of the patients.

“She wanted to pay NGOs R100 a day,” said Makgoba.

“Ask South Africans what can you do with R100?”

He found that many patients had been transferred to Weskoppies and Sterkfontein psychiatric hospitals, at which the daily cost per patient is almost R1000.

Makgoba refused to be drawn on whether Mahlangu should be criminally charged, saying the decision was not his to make. But he urged the police to complete the inquests and their investigations swiftly.

He has recommended that the police investigate whether NGO owners should be charged.

He has recommended that Selebano and Manamela be suspended pending disciplinary hearings.

Selebano must be reported to the Health Professions’ Council of SA and Manamela to the SA Nursing Council, he said.

He wants action against 10 officials in the Gauteng health department.

He said “a culture of fear” prevailed in the department that led to officials obeying orders that they knew were wrong.

He said all patients at all NGOs not being properly cared for must be removed.

Cullinan Care Centre, one the five facilities at which many patients died, still has patients on its premises.

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