Investigation into deaths of 36 psychiatric patients urged

Pressure is mounting on the Gauteng health department following deaths of 36 psychiatric patients earlier this year. The patients had been transferred from the Life Healthcare Esidimeni facility in Randfontein, Johannesburg, to facilities run by nongovernmental organisations.

Health minister Aaron Motsoaledi has asked the health ombudsman to investigate the deaths.

The revelations followed questions in the Gauteng legislature by DA MPL Jack Bloom. Provincial Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu answered these on Wednesday.

Mahlangu said the patients were transferred to NGOs after the health department cancelled its contract with Esidimeni. One of the main reasons for this was to cut costs. Esidimeni had a contract to look at around 2 000 patients.

Family members objected to the process, but were overruled.

Bloom said in a statement on Tuesday that; “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 he had reliably learnt that eight died at Precious Angels, while others died in Takalani and Cullinan.

One of the 36 that died was Virginia Machpelah, following her transfer to an NGO in Pretoria during May and June of this year. Her sister, Christine 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.”

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.”

The SA Society of Psychiatrists has subsequently said that this case is an illustration of how poorly equipped the country’s healthcare system is to handle patients suffering from mental illnesses. It said the NGOs where the patients were moved might not have had adequate facilities with which to deal with an influx of patients. 

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