'We’re here to stay' Steward Health Care reaffirms commitment to hospitals project

Steward Health Care has categorically refuted claims that it is planning to leave Malta should it not receive more funds from the government to carry out the obligations of its hospitals concession agreement

Steward Health Care has categorically refuted claims that it is planning to leave Malta should it not receive more funds from the government to carry out the obligations of its hospitals concession agreement.

The US company insisted it has no intention to pack its bags and leave, and that it was not requesting that the government give it any more disbursements for the contractual obligations specified in its contract.

In comments to BusinessToday, Steward’s Vice President for Corporate Affairs and Communications, Alessandra Pace, noted that the company had this week delivered on the €35 million Barts Medical School project

She also confirmed that in the coming months it would be presenting a master plan for Gozo, St Luke’s and Karin Grech hospitals to the Planning Authority for approval.

On Tuesday, Medical Association of Malta president Martin Balzan – citing claims by an unnamed middle-grade Steward official – said the company was considering leaving Malta unless government funding was increased.

Moreover, he said 2020 budgetary financial estimates indicated that the government had either approved or was planning to approve an increase in disbursements to Steward.

But Pace disputed the claims, saying that if Steward wanted to convey a message, it wouldn’t use a mid-level official to do so.

“We have no intention of leaving. We’ve just delivered a €35 million project to the government earlier this week. It’s very clear we are here to stay and are putting money into the projects,” she said. “We will be unveiling more plans as we go along.”

“We’re working to fulfil our contractual obligation in Malta,” she said, insisting that the claim Steward intended on leaving hadn’t come from the company’s management. “Staff members sometimes may form their own opinions, but this hasn’t come from management.”

Balzan had also lamented that a promised €200 million investment in a new Gozo hospital, a state-of-the-art rehabilitation hospital at Karin Grech and the complete refurbishment of St Luke’s hospital had not materialised. Both Gozo and Karin Grech hospitals are begging for basic maintenance, and St Luke’s hospital is in a state of abandonment, he said, insisting that the government’s public-private partnership (PPP) had failed.

Reacting to this, Pace said that, when it first took over the hospitals’ concession, Steward had been asked to prioritise the Barts project, which is why the medical school had been completed first.

Stressing that the work needed for the building of a new Gozo hospital and refurbishing St Luke’s and Karin Grech hospitals was, by its very nature, a long-term and complex job, she said Steward had drawn up a master plan for the undertaking, which it would be submitting for planning approval.

“These aren’t small facilities which are easy to build,” she said, “Building a hospital involves many aspects which have to be taken into consideration.”

“We’ve drawn up master plans for both the Gozo site and Malta sites, following consultations with stakeholders including doctors, nurses and professionals from across the industry. Those plans are now being finalised, and have been presented to the government, which has given us some preliminary feedback. We hope to be in a position to submit them to the PA for approval in the next few months.”

The task of redesigning and redeveloping the hospitals also had to take into consideration the fact that the St Luke’s and Karin Grech buildings were scheduled for their historical value. “As a company, we’ve taken the approach of respecting the historical integrity of the site in our development plan,” Pace said.

“We’re well on our way in delivering our objectives, and I don’t think we’re failing at all, or that we’re going to pack up and leave. Good things take time, and we’re planning and moving ahead.”

Pressed on whether Steward had asked the government for more funding, Pace said this was “not the case.”

“We are under contract here, and are committed on delivering on it. We are not asking for anything else,” she said, adding that if the government required any additional service which fell outside of the contract terms, there would be a discussion on how to implement this.

All disbursement in line with concession agreement – government

Responding to questions on the matter from this newspaper, a spokesperson for Health Minister Chris Fearne confirmed that all Steward disbursements effected by the government were in line with the concession agreements.

“So far, a total of more than €48 million have been invested by Steward Health Care in this project, €36 million of which have been invested for the building of the Barts Medical School,” the spokesperson said.

NAO rebuts ‘institutional failure’ claims

Balzan also alleged that the National Audit Office (NAO) had slept on a request by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to start an inquiry into the government’s PPP deal with Vitals Global Healthcare and Steward.

This, he said, amounted to an institutional failure of the Auditor General and his office.

The claims were subsequently rebutted by the NAO, which, calling Balzan’s comments “unfounded”, said the Office was presently conducting an extensive investigation of the Vitals and Steward agreements.

“The National Audit Office fails to understand these comments since these are unfounded. As all involved stakeholders are aware, the Office is presently conducting an extensive investigation of the agreements,” the NAO said.

Government should absorb Steward workers – UĦM

In a statement on Wednesday evening, the Union Ħaddiema Magħqudin said that Steward workers were doing their duty shoulder to shoulder with government employees, but were subject to significantly inferior conditions to their co-workers.

The UHM said Steward had been insisting that it wasn’t obliged to offer the same remuneration and conditions to its employees as those which government workers enjoyed.

“This is clear abuse which the government is allowing to persist in its hospitals,” the union said.

In light of this, the UHM said Steward workers should be absorbed by the government.

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