While many say the Free State health department's financial situation is dire, officials say "there's no problem at all".
The Free State health department may be on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to sustain its services for much longer, health activists believe.
According to Mark Heywood from the social justice organisation, Section27, “we have heard several rumours that the Free State health department has ran out of money, but we are in the process of confirming it”.
Another activist, who heads a non-governmental health organisation in Free State and asked not to be named, said a health department official addressed an internal meeting on Tuesday and said that the department might be placed under national administration.
But national health department spokesperson Joe Maila denied this. “There’s no problem in the Free State at all – why would we do that?” he said.
According to the Democratic Alliance (DA), medical waste removal services were suspended this week in a number of Free State health facilities that were more than 90 days late with payment. Free State DA member of provincial legislature Mariette Pittaway said the situation in the province was “critical”, with many service providers unpaid and health services suffering as a result.
Pittaway said the department was millions of rands in debt to medical waste removal company Solid Waste Technologies South Africa and that suspension of these services “poses a risk to both patients and medical personnel”.
Bhekisisa contacted Solid Waste Technologies South Africa, which confirmed that some services had been suspended and that it provided the DA with this information, but refused to comment further.
But Free State health department spokesperson Mondli Mvambi denied that any services have been suspended. “We were lagging behind with payment on our contract with Solid Waste [Technologies South Africa] but we have recovered. Medical waste is being collected and dumped appropriately,” he said.
According to one health activist, “a message was delivered from [health MEC] Benny Malakoane by another health official that service providers who speak to the media won’t get contracts”.
Meanwhile, Pittaway released a statement on Wednesday claiming that upgrades worth R1-million were made to the MEC’s office.
Mvambi admitted that upgrades had been done, but said the cost was “well under R1-million”. He did not know the exact amount. “This was money budgeted for maintenance and cannot be transferred to goods and services,” he said.
He said the office of the MEC has not been upgraded since 2002 and was looking “shabby”.
“It was an open-plan office, so we had to make partitions. There were also broken chairs that needed to be replaced as well as peeling wallpaper that had to be addressed.”
Mvambi said the upgrades began in January and finished in March and were necessary to give the office a “corporate feel” so “stakeholders will take us seriously”.
In May, Bhekisisa reported that Central Park clinic in Bloemfontein was shut down because of non-payment for rent. The clinic is a mere 500m from the MEC’s office.
In 2013, the activist group Stop Stock-Outs Project, which monitors drug stock-outs around the country, found that over half of Free State facilities surveyed ran out of antiretroviral medication for HIV patients in September and October last year.