[WATCH] Updated | Doctors’ union withdraws demand for public hospitals privatisation deal to be cancelled

The Medical Association of Malta has withdrawn its demand for the cancellation of the VGH privatisation deal after agreement with government ensures all doctors will remain answerable to the chief medical officer

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne and MAM president Martin Balzan
Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne and MAM president Martin Balzan
MAM president Martin Balzan on the agreement with government over the VGH privatisation deal

Updated at 1.30pm with Steward Healthcare statement

Doctors are no longer calling for the cancellation of the privatisation deal with Vitals Global Healthcare after reaching an agreement with the government.

The agreement was signed on Tuesday morning with Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Chris Fearne.

Martin Balzan, president of the Medical Association of Malta, said this morning that doctors had achieved their aim that ensures all present and future doctors involved in public-private partnerships will remain answerable to the government’s chief medical officer.

The union had gone on the warpath earlier this year after news broke that Vitals Global Healthcare – the company that was granted a concession to run three public hospitals – had sold its shareholding to American outfit, Steward Healthcare, less than two years in the deal.

VGH was granted a 30-year concession, with a unilateral option to extend it to 99 years, for the running of St Luke's, Karin Grech and Gozo general hospitals. But the unknown consortium, made up of four investors, was unable to secure the necessary capital to take the project forward and decided to transfer its concession after just 21 months.

MAM had asked for the privatisation deal to be cancelled as a result of VGH’s failure to deliver on its commitments, something the government refused to do because of contractual obligations.

Read also: Steward Health Care announces VGH takeover

However, Balzan told journalists on Tuesday morning that the union’s principle aim was to ensure that all doctors involved in public-private partnerships remain on the public payroll and answerable to the chief medical officer. “Once this was achieved, our original demand for the deal to be cancelled became irrelevant… we are not against private investment in public healthcare but this agreement is more robust and binds the government for the future, apart from addressing the situation with Steward.”

Balzan’s tone was radically different to the position adopted earlier this year when he described the government agreement with VGH as “a dodgy deal”.

“If we had to start afresh, we believe things should have been done differently but now it is time to look to the future and this agreement ensures we can move forward,” he said.

Asked whether MAM had been shown the VGH agreement in its entirety – a heavily redacted version had been tabled in Parliament in 2016 – Balzan said union officials were shown an electronic copy of the section they had asked for.

The agreement with MAM has defused a potentially explosive situation for the government, particularly Fearne, who inherited the toxic VGH deal from his predecessor Konrad Mizzi.

The agreement with MAM was reached after lengthy and intense negotiations, Fearne admitted.

He said any new doctors recruited by Steward will have to pass through the public recruitment process and join the public payroll but the company will reimburse the government for their wages.

The minister said government reiterated its commitment that public healthcare would remain free of charge and doctors at Mater Dei hospital will be given the opportunity to train at the three hospitals run by Steward.

Steward welcome agreement

Steward Healthcare chief operating officer Nadine Delicata welcomed the agreement between MAM and the government, adding the company was committed to work with all stakeholders.

Delicata said Steward had a reputation as a "high quality, and trust-worthy" health care provider led by physicians who have worked in hospital environments and who understand the meaning of quality care. "This agreement marks the continuation of a strong relationship with doctors across the healthcare system in Malta, which we hope will lead to sustained growth and development of professionals working within our hospitals in Malta and Gozo," Delicata said.

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