'Finding missing patients is frustrating'

Gauteng Health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa has described as frustrating efforts to find patients who were transferred from the Life Esidimeni facility to unlicensed NGOs.

As the arbitration hearings into the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients went into recess this week, one question still lingered: Where are the remaining 59 patients?

“We didn’t know where people were. We even went to those that were buried, especially by NGOs, and identified them,” she said.

The department roped in experts from Stats SA and the departments of home affairs and social development to double check who on the list of patients was still receiving grants and determine where they could be.

“They were very helpful in that process,” Ramokgopa said.

They suspected that some patients could have been taken in by their families, who did not live in Gauteng.

“What I committed with various stakeholders to do was to account for every single patient. It has been a frustrating process,” she explained.

The department was forced to request information from Life Esidimeni officials by using the Promotion of Access to Information Act after they were not forthcoming with the patients’ details or contact information.

“But once we got the data, we had to track each and every patient that left [Life Esidimeni]. Some left for home and were taken in by their families. Some went to our public hospitals and many went to the NGOs, and that’s where the tragedy happened.”

Speculation was rife about what could have happened to the patients and the condition they might be in.

National health department director-general Malebona Precious Matsoso brought the matter to the attention of Judge Dikgang Moseneke, who is chairing the arbitration hearings.

She told him there were patients that had not been accounted for.

Matsoso said seven corpses had not been identified and their families had not been found.

DA MPL Jack Bloom asked how it was possible that there could still be so many untraced and unidentified patients who were discharged from Esidimeni last year.

“They could be alive in good or bad circumstances, or they could be dead, and NGOs and others could
be using their money without reporting them as deceased.”

Andrew Peterson, a member of the committee representing the families of patients who died or survived the tragedy, said they were trying to find the families, but hadn’t been able to get in touch with anyone as they too didn’t have much information.

He said they weren’t at liberty to divulge any other information until the arbitration process was over.

Health Ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba said he wasn’t yet ready to comment on the missing 59 patients or any other related issue. He wrote a damning report following an investigation into the deaths of the patients, which was released in February. At that stage at least 94 patients had been confirmed dead.

“I did what I was supposed to do, now I just have to sit at the hearings like everyone else, but I won’t comment until it is over,” he said.

Bloom said it was time the public heard from the politicians involved in the process, and who were ultimately accountable for the tragedy.

They included former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, who is due to testify on January 22, followed by Gauteng Premier David Makhura and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.

“It is clear that former MEC Qedani Mahlangu was the driving force behind the cancellation of the Esidimeni contract, and health officials were scared to challenge the reckless transfer of patients to illegally registered NGOs,” Bloom said.

He said Makhura needed to be asked how much he knew about the Esidimeni transfers, including why he ignored warnings sent to him and alarming media reports.

He further had to explain why he failed to fire Mahlangu immediately after 36 deaths were revealed in response to his question in the Gauteng legislature on September 13 last year.

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