Health minister Chris Fearne said he is ready to publish the entire contract the government had signed with Vitals Global Healthcare for the privatisation of three hospitals after VGH has sold its shares to US healthcare company Steward Global Healthcare.
“I have nothing to fear, and when the handover is complete I will show the full contract to the Opposition leader and shadow health minister,” Fearne said during a parliamentary debate on the deal. “Together, we can meet up with Steward’s lawyers and publish what we can.”
Fearne’s pledge marks a significant change in tack from that of his predecessor Konrad Mizzi, who had only published the VGH contract with several pages and practically all figures blacked out.
Opposition leader Adrian Delia could clearly sense a rift between Fearne and Mizzi, personally calling on the health minister to “do what he knows is right” and re-nationalise the St Luke’s, Karin Grech and Gozo General hospitals.
“Fearne knows the VGH deal was all wrong from the start, but health is now in his hands and the decision lies with him,” Delia said, “He can choose to sell Malta to another person or he can return those three hospitals to the Maltese people at the stroke of a pen. We believe in Maltese doctors and we want the reins of those three hospitals in our hands.”
Tourism minister Konrad Mizzi
Fearne once again refused to take ownership of the VGH deal, saying “we” [the government] believe the deal was above board but he will suspend full judgement pending an investigation by the National Audit Office which he had personally requested over a year ago.
Although he admitted VGH fell short of its targets, he refused to pin the blame on the private company itself – instead blaming its delays on Planning Authority bureaucracy and archaeological remains found during construction.
“We told VGH to hurry up or find another solution, and they came up with a solution which was to sell their shares to Steward,” Fearne said. “We had no problem in pressuring VGH to up its game because our interest is the Maltese people and patients.”
He outright dismissed the Opposition’s calls to re-nationalise the three hospitals, arguing it will take significant levels of funding to upgrade them from their dilapidated states and the government doesn’t want to place future generations in debt by borrowing the money itself. Notable upgrades envisaged in the VGH deal – which will now be transferred to Steward – include a rehabilitation hospital, a nursing hospital, a dermatology centre and a physiotherapy centre at St Luke’s, a brand new hospital in Gozo, and the conversion of Karin Grech into a geriatric hospital.
Konrad Mizzi, now tourism minister, defended the deal by arguing it requires VGH (and now Steward) to invest €220 million into the three hospitals, places capital risk on the investor, and was approved of by Cabinet.