Representatives of six provincial health departments yesterday appeared before a joint sitting of parliament’s standing committee on appropriations and the portfolio committee on health to discuss the delivery of health services.
Some of the representatives raised the issue of high legal claims against their departments, which they said were mostly attributable to unscrupulous attorneys trying to cash in.
The attorneys were said to have shifted their attention to state hospitals after the Road Accident Fund cracked down on the submission of inflated claims.
Some of the provinces have contingent liabilities running into billions of rands.
KwaZulu-Natal, which has the second-highest claims total after Gauteng, told the committee that its contingent liabilities for medical litigation was almost R10-billion.
The province spent R243-million on claims in 2016-2017 – for which it had not budgeted.
KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Sibongiseni Dhlomo said the claims were not based only on allegations of negligence.
Dhlomo said law firms advertised their services to encourage people to employ them if they felt they had received poor medical treatment from the state.
He said lawyers were colluding with doctors to get patient files in order to lodge claims.
Dhlomo said most of the claims against his department were birth- related and frequently cited cerebral palsy as a result of birth complications.
He said there were legitimate claims but unscrupulous attorneys were visiting early childhood development centres looking for children with cerebral palsy so they could claim against the state.
“If we admit we made a mistake there must be compensation, but in some cases millions are being requested for future medical expenses. We should rather be saying that person can walk into any of our facilities and receive the medical treatment they need at any point because, even if they are claiming millions for medical expenses, they are still ending up back in our hospitals.”
KwaZulu-Natal Finance MEC Belinda Francis Scott said the attorneys’ behaviour was “not only criminal, but parasitical. They are vultures”.
She said gynaecologists and obstetricians in private practice were having to take out huge insurance policies to protect themselves from the ever-increasing number of claims.
”If there is a problem birth, there are lawyers waiting there, before the baby is even born. And they tell the family that they are submitting a claim for R100 000 and then they submit a claim for R2-million and pocket the rest,” she said.
In the 2015-2016 financial year the allowance for contingent liabilities by the Gauteng health department amounted to R13-billion.
The acting head of the Gauteng health department, Ernest Kenoshi, said the number of claims against the province was “outrageous”.
He said an analysis of the cases that resulted in the department paying compensation showed that there were instances in which the department could have “fought harder” or got better legal advice.
The department said it had paid R600-million to lawyers in the past year alone.
The Northern Cape has R1.2-billion in pending legal claims, and there has been an increase in claims of more than 100% in Limpopo in the past year.
The Limpopo health department told the committee there had been a 133% increase in legal claims – from an average R30-million a year between 2013 and 2015 to R70-million in 2016-2017.
The Law Society of SA said those affected by medical malpractice had the right to be legally represented and compensated.
“It cannot be that victims of medical malpractice – who are often the poor and vulnerable – should be expected to have the specialist knowledge, money and power to take on the state through an “administrative process” if they have suffered life-changing and critical damage at the hands of the healthcare system and healthcare practitioners.
The society said collusion between doctors and lawyers should be reported to the provincial law societies and to the police.