Doctors, nurses shocked by Abela’s praise of Steward

A country stewed: Doctors and nurses cannot understand why Prime Minister played up Steward Health Care’s achievements when promised infrastructural investment never came

The Gozo General Hospital
The Gozo General Hospital

Robert Abela’s praise of Steward Health Care in parliament has left health sector stakeholders shocked with one union boss calling it a “damage control exercise”.

The Prime Minister used most of his hour-long speech last Thursday to list Steward’s achievements in trying to justify the millions spent by government on the hospitals concession.

But Abela’s spirited defence of Steward on the same day the company announced its withdrawal from Malta raised eyebrows among nurses and doctors.

“It was shocking to hear the Prime Minister list what he described as Steward’s investments and praising them for services rendered,” Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses President Paul Pace said. “What we saw was a Prime Minister engaging in a damage control exercise for the Labour Party and not a Prime Minister willing to defend the people.”

Pace said the Prime Minister exaggerated the investments made by Steward, making them seem much more than what they actually were - ordinary upgrades that any clinic or hospital has to invest in over time.

Justifying the unjustifiable

The sentiment was shared by Medical Association of Malta President Martin Balzan, who said the Prime Minister “tried to justify the unjustifiable”.

“The Prime Minister should have just said that he will abide by the court decision and if need be boast about the good investments done by government with EU funds in the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Hospital, the emergency wards at Mater Dei and the Paola Hub, and not about the investments Steward did not do,” Balzan said.

Martin Balzan
Martin Balzan

The government spent €450 million on the Steward hospitals concession, Balzan insisted, to the detriment of other public investments it had promised and were never realised.

“Steward were obliged to invest €200 million in new, modern infrastructure but this was not done and to add insult to injury, the money government gave them sucked up the funds that could have gone to build the new outpatient block at Mater Dei and proper wards to ease overcrowding,” Balzan said.

He said that the Barts medical school that Steward built in Gozo was good and should be isolated from the concession agreement but this was not a hospital that benefitted patients.

‘So, what?’ 

Nurses’ boss Paul Pace said the two ambulances, the dentistry unit and the Gozo hospital helicopter mentioned by the Prime Minister were run of the mill expenditures and not the promised investment of millions of euros Steward had to make.

“We did not bring in Steward for the day-to-day running of the hospitals but to invest millions in infrastructure by building a new hospital in Gozo, carry out substantial refurbishment at Karin Grech and revamp St Luke’s Hospital,” Pace insisted, adding none of these major investments were carried out over the past eight years.

Paul Pace
Paul Pace

He also took issue with the Prime Minister boasting about the 1,000 admissions Steward handled at Karin Grech Hospital. “So, what? Karin Grech was already operational and St Vincent de Paul Home for the elderly has much more admissions than that.”

But Pace put his finger on another problem caused by the failed concession and which the Prime Minister ignored completely.

“There is an opportunity cost to Steward’s failure to create beds at St Luke’s and Gozo. The additional beds there were supposed to alleviate the problems of overcrowding at Mater Dei Hospital. Unfortunately, today, we have canteens and stores at MDH being used as wards because we have nowhere to put patients,” Pace said.

He lamented that nurses had to work in the makeshift wards, he described as “hell-holes”.

“The Prime Minister should have called a spade, a spade without praising Steward when the promised investments never materialised,” Pace said.

The hospitals saga

Gozo General, St Luke’s and Karin Grech hospitals were granted on concession to Vitals Global Healthcare in 2015 after a dubious tendering process.

The National Audit Office had attributed collusion between the VGH investors and government officials, describing the concession as a done deal despite a competitive tendering process.

The private company had to invest more than €200 million to build a new hospital in Gozo and carry out extensive refurbishments at St Luke’s and Karin Grech with the aim of attracting medical tourism.

Government would pay the company for a number of beds it would use as part of the public health service.

However, VGH went bust, failing to live up to its contractual obligations until the concession was sold to Steward in 2018.

Steward also failed to live up to its contractual obligations, seeking to renegotiate the agreement.

In 2019, an agreement signed by then minister Konrad Mizzi stipulated that Steward would be able to collect €100 million from government if the concession was terminated by the courts. 

The secret agreement came in the wake of an ongoing court case to rescind the contract, filed by Opposition MP Adrian Delia.

The case was decided last month by Mr Justice Francesco Depasquale, who cancelled the agreement and ordered that the three hospitals be returned to the government.

The judge attributed fraudulent intent to VGH and Steward and found shortcomings in the way public officials accepted conditions that were unfavourable to the government.

Steward is appealing the ruling but in the meantime, has given notice of departure from Malta.

Last Thursday, parliament held a special session to discuss an Opposition motion condemning the hospitals deal and obliging the government to sue Steward.

The sitting ended in disarray with Opposition MPs walking off before the vote and Abela promising to take legal action against Steward only after an investigation by the National Audit Office.