[WATCH] Robert Abela confirms Steward want hospitals deal renegotiation, plays down Muscat role

Prime Minister Robert Abela says that if Joseph Muscat had been representing Steward Healthcare in talks, he wouldn’t have felt comfortable meeting the hospitals concessionaire

Robert Abela was introduced to Steward Healthcare's president Armin Ernst by Joseph Muscat
Robert Abela was introduced to Steward Healthcare's president Armin Ernst by Joseph Muscat

Robert Abela has confirmed meeting representatives of Steward Healthcare and did not exclude the possibility of renegotiating the multi-million hospitals concessions deal. 

The Prime Minister described the meeting, which was facilitated by his predecessor Joseph Muscat, as an “introductory rendezvous” with Steward but did not deny that renegotiation was on the cards.

“Joseph Muscat, together with Chris Fearne, introduced me to them. There was an introductory meeting that only lasted for a few minutes… there might be negotiations to revisit the contract, there might be various changes, whether the contract will remain in place, whether it will be revoked by government or by Steward or whether the conditions of said contract will be renegotiated,” Abela said.

MaltaToday revealed yesterday how Muscat, whose career as Malta prime minister ended on 12 January, accompanied Steward Healthcare International’s president Armin Ernst for a meeting with Abela and Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne. The meeting that took place at Auberge de Castille was also attended by the principal permanent secretary.

READ ALSO: Joseph Muscat lobbies Robert Abela to renegotiate Steward hospitals deal

Muscat was said to have communicated his wish to see that the €250 million privatisation project go on as initially promised.

The US-based company acquired the 30-year concession offered by the government to the hitherto-unknown Vitals Healthcare Group, for an undisclosed sum. Malta is Steward’s first international expansion.

MaltaToday is informed that Steward is interested in clinching more concessions on the deal, especially since the business VGH originally set out to achieve – such as the medical tourism objectives – has, so far, been elusive.

Asked whether Steward will be made to hold up their end of the bargain and whether it was his view that the State was already paying Steward a hefty sum to fulfil their obligations, Abela reiterated that the meeting was a preliminary one.

“I will be conducting an exhaustive stocktake of the situation. The decision will be taken in the best interest of the country, in terms of its financial aspect, and in the best interest of the healthcare system in our country,” he said, adding that he was open to every situation and was not excluding any scenario at this point in time. 

Abela insisted that Muscat had not represented Steward in any way when he facilitated the meeting with his successor and the healthcare giant.

“It’s not true that Joseph Muscat was representing Steward because otherwise I would not have accepted to be present for that meeting… I don’t feel comfortable with someone who was prime minister and now a backbencher being present for a meeting of this kind… in fact, he wasn’t… his involvement was simply as a way of introducing me,” Abela said. 

The original deal signed with Vitals Global Healthcare in 2015 was to have the new managers invest about €250 million in the first years of the concession agreement by building state-of-the-art facilities at the three hospitals – Gozo general hospital, Karen Grech and St Luke’s.

Little of that investment was ever managed by VGH after folding in 2017, when it failed to obtain financing from international banking institutions, and selling the concession to Steward.

Asked whether he was comfortable working with someone who was close to the former chief of staff, Keith Schembri, in light of Abela’s removal of OPM officials who shared a close relationship with Schembri, Abela replied: “It’s not a question of eliminating people… I want to work with individuals who I have faith in and, naturally, there are good people who have every right to keep working. The judgement on the relationship between Schembri and Muscat… the decisions which needed to be taken were taken. Now, we look to the future.”

READ ALSO: Steward Health Care announces VGH takeover