Health: We’re in a mess

2008-07-29 00:00

The tight fiscal situation in which the KZN department of Health finds itself is seriously compromising its ability to roll out much-needed public services, MEC Peggy Nkonyeni admitted yesterday.

“Sometimes we cannot pay, or are forced to delay paying, our service providers [for services rendered to the department] because of the budget constraints,” Nkonyeni told members of the provincial legislature’s Health portfolio committee during a meeting.

This admission comes just over two months after The Witness first reported on a crisis facing some public hospitals in the province.

Witness investigations in May established that some hospitals around Pietermaritzburg, including Northdale and Townhill, were short of basic, everyday supplies.

These ranged from syringes and protective gloves worn by health professionals to detergents and nappies for newborn babies.

At the time, the department denied that there was any crisis.

Departmental spokesman Leon Mbangwa said at the time that mechanisms had been put in place to deal with such shortages, adding that more supplies were expected in those hospitals soon after that.

However, Nkonyeni’s remarks paint a different picture, that of a deteriorating situation and of hospitals on the brink of a crisis.

“Every day we are inundated with e-mails from hospital managers who complain about not being able to deliver services because of the budget constraints.”

The department has had to cut down on its expenditure after it overspent by about R1,2 billion in the last financial year.

The department’s woes do not end there. Understaffing is one of the major problems that continue to beleaguer the department.

While the department currently has a staff complement of 67 598, a significant increase over the 59 991 who were in its employ in January last year, officials contend that this is too little.

According to Sipho Buthelezi, the department’s chief financial officer, the department has set itself a target ratio of one nurse to 40 patients. This, the department says, will allow its institutions to render only a “satisfactory” service to the patients.

It seems unlikely, however, that the department will be able to meet the target any time soon.

The department has been instructed by the Treasury not to fill over 33 000 vacant posts because of a lack of funding for them.

About 15 439 of the 33 000 posts are to be frozen and can therefore still be filled when funds become available.

However, the department has been forced to “abolish” some remaining 18 000 posts.

The current ratio of nurses to patients in public hospitals in KZN is 1: 69.

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