Updated | Opposition MP tears into hospital contracts: ‘Scandalous with amateur mistakes’

Opposition MP Claudette Buttigieg accuses former minister Konrad Mizzi of 'selling Malta's health services to fatten his pockets' • Health minister Chris Fearne says deal will breathe life into three hospitals that had been 'left abandoned' 

VGH has been entrusted with revamping the St. Luke's (pictured), Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals.
VGH has been entrusted with revamping the St. Luke's (pictured), Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals.

Shadow health minister Claudette Buttigieg ripped into the government’s contracts to partially privatise the St Luke’s, Gozo and Karin Grech hospitals, warning that they reek of scandals and include several amateur mistakes.

Health minister Chris Fearne earlier this month tabled the contracts that will see Vitals Global Healthcare invest some €200 million to revamp the three hospitals over the next 30 years, but with some 60 pages blacked out due to “commercial sensitivity”. 

Speaking in Parliament during a debate on the 2017 budget estimates on health, Buttigieg said that practically all numbers – including deadlines and dates – have been removed from the contract. Non-commercially sensitive information such as the amount of patients who have attended the Gozo Hospital’s outpatients’ clinic has also been blacked out.  

Vitalis Healthcare Ltd, which was registered as a Maltese company back in May 2015, is owned by Bluestone Investments Malta Ltd, which is in turn owned by Bluestone Situation Four Ltd – registered as an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands.

Buttigieg noted that the contract was originally awarded to Vitalis Healthcare Ltd and questioned why it has now changed its name to Vitals Global Healthcare. She also questioned the identity of the company’s ultimate beneficiary and warned that the set-up has rendered it impossible to determine the source and destination of funds invested and profits earned by the company.

The Opposition MP also questioned why the companies were registered in Malta a few days before then health minister Konrad Mizzi had announced that they had won the contract, and whether the government had conducted due diligence tests on the other bidders of the project.

She also noted that the contract was signed on 30 November 2015, two days before auditing firm Nexia BT partner Karl Cini had e-mailed Mossack Fonseca, instructing the Panamanian law firm to set up offshore companies for Mizzi and OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri.

“Who do you think you’re fooling?” Buttigieg shouted out. “You don’t need to be clever to realize that there is something scandalous about this contract. Our health services are being sold so that a few people can fatten their pockets. This is a scandalous and scary situation and must lead to immediate resignations. I urge Chris Fearne to distance himself from these contracts, as they will damage his reputation.”

Moreover, she said that the contract includes several basic mistakes – such as some clauses that refer to the wrong schedules and others that refer to operating theatres to be used for “other specialities” and operating theatre protocols that “include, but are not limited to, infection control, storage, etcetera”.

“Phrases such as ‘other specialities’ and ‘etcetera’ mean absolutely nothing from a legal point of view. These are mistakes that one wouldn’t make when selling his garage, let alone when signing such important health service contracts. Did anyone even check this contract, or was it drawn up quickly in an attempt to shut the Opposition up?” 

‘Deal will breathe new life into run-down hospitals’ - Fearne 

In his speech, Chris Fearne accused the Opposition of conducting a fear campaign against the project, which he said will give a new lease of life to three hospitals that “had been left in a run-down state” by the previous PN administration.

“The previous administration had treated Gozitan patients as second-class citizens, but we will give their hospital 450 new beds, along with a new medical school, a new childcare centre and a new health centre,” he said. “A rehabilitation hospital, a world-class prosthetics centre and a dermatology centre, a nursing school, and a centre for medical tourism will be built at St Luke’s, while Karin Grech will be converted into a geriatric hospital.”

Health minister Chris Fearne shows the House photos of the Gozo hospital's kitchen taken in 2013
Health minister Chris Fearne shows the House photos of the Gozo hospital's kitchen taken in 2013

The health minister defended the government’s strategy of partially privatizing the health service, arguing that it was an ideal way of financing capital projects in the sector while keeping services free of charge.

Indeed, he announced that the government plans to request private companies to purchase expensive health equipment, such as MRI machines, for Mater Dei. The government will then completely subsidise the usage of this equipment, hence keeping the health system free of charge for patients.

“We want to utilize all of the country’s resources, including those of the private sector, so as to improve the national health system,” he said.

Fearne also said that the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, in collaboration with the University of Malta, will as of January start offering specialized courses in surgery to medical students.

At one point, he mocked Opposition leader Simon Busuttil as a “leader of no position”, arguing that he had recently flip-flopped on his stance on emergency contraceptive in the wake of public outrage.

“He’s like a child watching Chelsea play against Manchester United, who switches his allegiance depending on which team is winning at the time.” 

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