Health minister wants probe of psychiatric patient deaths

Johannesburg - Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has asked the health ombudsman to investigate the deaths of 36 psychiatric patients after they were transferred out of a government facility earlier this year.

He asked the ombudsman to provide a report and recommendations. Led by Malegapuru Makgoba, the office of the ombudsman was established to investigate such cases.

The decision was made after a lengthy consultation with Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu on Wednesday, health ministry spokesperson Joe Maila said.

The patients died after being transferred from the Life Esidimeni facility in Johannesburg earlier this year.

Maila said Mahlangu gave Motsoaledi an update on the transfer and asked the national health department to “deal with the matter effectively”.

Earlier this week, DA MPL Jack Bloom said Mahlangu had revealed during a reply to questions in the Gauteng Legislature that the patients were transferred to 122 NGOs after the department cancelled its contract with Life Healthcare Esidimeni. This was despite opposition from the patients’ families.

Life Esidimeni looked after about 2 000 patients and was funded by the department. Mahlangu previously cited cost-cutting measures as one of the main reasons for the contract cancellation.

“Mahlangu said that the patients were transferred without the clinical files that detailed their medical history, and doctors were sent to the NGOs to examine the medical needs of the patients,” Bloom said in a statement on Tuesday.

“She said that an investigation was continuing into the cause of the deaths,” he added.

Christine Nxumalo's sister Virginia Machpelah was one of the 36 patients who died after being transferred to an NGO in Pretoria during May and June.

Nxumalo said she received a call on August 25, from a woman working for an NGO called Precious Angels. She told her she had been caring for her sister for six weeks.

“It was the first time I had heard of any of that. She told me that my sister had passed on the 17th and she had struggled to reach me.”

Heads must roll

Nxumalo said it took time for the news to sink in, as she was preoccupied with trying to get her sister’s paperwork and body collected and arrange a funeral.

“I think the first time I really broke down and cried was when I saw her.”

Her family was trying to deal with their loss. It was even more difficult for Virginia’s 19-year-old daughter.

“Her mother’s death cannot be in vain. If it means heads must roll then let them roll.”

Nxumalo said the relationship between the families and the provincial department had been marked by miscommunication since the announcement of the contract cancellation.

Families had begged the department not to cut ties with Life Healthcare. When that seemed like it was not an option, Nxumalo said families had asked for the transfers not to be rushed.

She accused the department of not acting in good faith or willing to negotiate.

“It was not something that was done in good faith. We knew there was going to be issues. We knew it was going to be a disaster but I don’t think anyone anticipated death, and so many,” she said.

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