Dr Duane Sands, Minister of Health. Photo: Shawn Hanna/Tribune Staff
By RICARDO WELLS
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE government can no longer permit “free passes” in the health services sector due to huge revenue deficits, according to Health Minister Dr Duane Sands who yesterday said he was willing to meet with irate funeral directors in response to their protest outside of the Princess Margaret Hospital on Friday.
Some funeral directors demonstrated after taking issue with several fee increases tied to PMH’s Morgue Department, such as autopsies and the release of remains.
“The truth of the matter is PHA lost $9m in the first quarter of 2017 and projections are showing a $40m to $50m loss over the remaining three quarters,” Dr Sands told The Tribune when contacted on Sunday.
“We can’t offset that if we don’t make drastic changes and make them soon. After reviewing what we had going, the determination was made to address those services considered free or at very low-cost.”
Admitting surprise to how industry operators reacted to the new fee schedule, the Elizabeth MP said he understood the increases could be viewed as a bitter pill to swallow, but insisted various departments throughout the health sector had to do their part to “chip away at the big problem.”
Dr Sands said since coming to office and being briefed on the “dire situation” the country’s health services were in, he with senior health officials went to work on strategies that would cut waste in the sector and maximise value.
Dr Sands said in addition to those moves, officials still had to “find the necessary areas” from which they could generate internal revenue that could be used to “improve the things we needed to improve without taxing the public purse.”
“There were some services that were operating way below the bare minimum, to the point PHA and to an extent, the Ministry of Health was eating the expenses for them. Those were the operations we targeted.
“When a funeral service provider is engaged and remains of a love one are to be released, all we are saying is, any body left with us after that point will be billed a fee. We have to move beyond this belief that these facilities can be used without a charge.
“Here is further truth, when these bodies are kept, the people foot the bill. And when I say people, I am referring to the Treasury. This is the same thing with autopsies. This is an expensive service that we barely charge for and the government has to eat all the extra cost. We can’t continue this style of operation,” Dr Sands said.
He continued: “We’ve created this political illusion that so many things are free or cheap, but often times the government is going to great lengths to lower that cost or cover the bill. We in the health sector are in a situation now where we need to save money and improve our offerings; all while delivering quality services along the way.
“This is truly impossible to do if we can’t raise more revenue. That is what we are trying to do here.”
Funeral operators on Friday said they received a notice almost a month ago that indicated that the Public Hospitals Authority (PHA) would be increasing storage fees for remains not collected on time.
However, when several operators visited the morgue Friday, they said they were greeted with an entirely new fee structure that included rate hikes and new taxes for autopsies, none of which, they said, they were consulted on or agreed to.
Sources suggested to The Tribune that bodies undergoing private autopsies would now incur between a $500 and $700 charge. Additionally, autopsies of any remains collected from wards at the hospital would incur fees ranging from $250 to $350.
Moreover, the new fee structure called for a $100 handling fee for all remains and a $50 per day late fee for any remains not collected on time.
The new fee schedule also came with the stern warning that no remains would be released if all fees were not paid in full.
Following their protest Friday, several of the directors were invited to sit in a meeting with hospital officials.
It is unclear if any resolution came out of that meeting.