This Is The Real Reason Why Doctors Went On Strike For The First Time In Nine Years

Malta Medical Association clarifies its exact demands on hospital privatisation

Strike

MAM Secretary General Martin Balzan (centre) with A&E doctors earlier today

Doctors’ strikes are a very rare occurrence in Malta, with the one held today the first since 2009 and the second since the turn of the millennium.

Yet although people like Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield have accused the striking doctors of being politically motivated by a desire not to see healthcare improve under a PL government, the doctors have a very clear explanation. 

The dispute revolves around a 30-year concession to operate and drastically upgrade the dilapidated St Luke’s, Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals that the government had originally signed with Vitals Global Healthcare but which will now be transferred to US giant Steward Health Care. The government’s arguments in favour of the deal have been that private investment is necessary for Malta to have a world-class healthcare infrastructure and that healthcare will remain completely free for patients…essentially a best of both worlds situation for the Maltese public. 

Yet, the Malta Medical Association’s dispute is not in any way against the government making use of private capital to upgrade hospital infrastructure. 

“We really couldn’t care less whether the government gets the funds to improve infrastructure from the private sector, from the budget, from government stocks or from wherever,” MAM secretary general Martin Balzan told Lovin Malta. “The maintenance of government hospitals is all outsourced and we have absolutely no problem with that.”

So what is concerning the MAM so much?

Chris

Health minister Chris Fearne 

“We are insisting that the involvement of the private sector be limited solely to investment and that hospital management be left completely in the hands of government,” Balzan said. “The reason is that we believe the government is better than the private sector in providing social services, while the private sector is better than government at making profits.” 

Although healthcare will remain free of charge, the MAM is still highly concerned that vulnerable patients will ultimately still get the short end of the stick. 

“The private sector runs hospitals like a business, and in business it is natural to promote profit-making activities at the expense of loss-making ones,” Balzan said. “When you transpose this logic to healthcare, you see that the loss-making activities are social services that deal with rare diseases and with the most vulnerable groups of people. Therefore, the risk is that these people will be sidelined as Steward focuses on activities that bring a profit.”

There are other risks too. Although the majority of doctors at the St Luke’s, Gozo and Karin Grech hospitals are still employed by the government, a handful of them are employed by VGH/Steward. What this means is that the private operator can sacrifice salaries if the government is pressuring it to meet targets it had agreed to in the concession.

“I heard that Vitals had stopped paying some of its staff as soon as [health minister] Chris Fearne started pressuring them to hurry up and reach their targets,” Balzan said. “The government is essentially placed in a tough situation if it wants to pressure the private operator to reach its targets.”

Besides, of course, there is a risk that Steward will also do a Vitals and back out after a few years if it realises the hospitals will not make them any money…a tactic the US firm has used when taking control of other loss-making hospitals. 

What makes the whole situation doubly frustrating for the MAM is that Chris Fearne actually seems to agree with them!

“We met up with Fearne yesterday and kept insisting to him that the problem isn’t Steward but the entire deal,” Balzan said. “Fearne told us he agrees with our argument in principle and that the government will maintain full control over the operation of hospitals in any future public-private partnerships in healthcare. Yet he told us that there’s nothing he can do about the Vitals-Steward deal because it will be too expensive and legally compel to scrap.”

And here seems to be where the real bone of contention lies.   

“We’re talking about a deal that still has 28 years to run, and it’s unfair for doctors and patients to take the fall because the government is reluctant to cut its losses,” Balzan said. 

What do you make of the entire hospital privatisation deal? 

READ NEXT: All The Twists and Turns Of Malta's Controversial Hospital Deal As A New Chapter Begins

Written By

Tim Diacono

Tim Diacono tends to clam up when asked to describe himself. You can contact him on [email protected]

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