OP-ED: Govt’s secret health insurance deal must be investigated- Ramsammy

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Below is an edited commentary by a former health Minister, Dr Leslie Ramsammy on Government procuring health insurance polices for its Ministers. While he is in favour of Ministers receiving health insurance, Ramsammy says the current process being undertaken by the incumbent Administration is illegal, secretive, unaccountable and non-transparent.

 

Dr Leslie Ramsammy

Minister Joe Harmon’s clumsy refutation of my story that the APNU+AFC administration signed a secret, sole-sourced health insurance deal with a Surinamese Headquartered Insurance company,  not only confirmed the story, but makes a strong case for the Public Procurement Commission to add this transaction to its bucket list of illegal transactions entered into by APNU+AFC.

The facts as presented in my original story now have been authenticated by Minister Harmon. Indeed, Finance Minister Jordon and other senior personnel of APNU+AFC who have joined Minister Harmon in a vain effort to refute my story merely added further confirmation to my story.

For clarity, I again present the facts. Fact #1 is that an health insurance deal was signed by APNU+AFC with an insurance company. Minister Harmon, Minister Jordon and others in their clumsy effort to obfuscate, confirmed that APNU+AFC did sign the agreement. Fact#2 confirmed by Harmon and others is that the deal is worth over $38M annually and for a five-year term of government it is worth an accumulated sum of $190M (or close to $US1M).

Fact#3 is that the deal is a sole-sourced arrangement. There was never any public advertisement or any public solicitation or request for proposal, as is required by law for such expenditures. APNU+AFC embarked on a deliberate path to avoid and subvert the procurement procedures. This too was confirmed by Minister Harmon and Minister Jordon.

Fact #4 is that the deal was negotiated and consummated secretly. The contract was never publicly announced at any post-Cabinet briefing or at any other public information session. It was deliberately concluded as a secret arrangement and only became a subject for public discussion after it was exposed by me many months after the fact.

In their defense, they opened up a “can of worms” that forces me to call on the Public Procurement Commission to investigate this transaction. The defense by APNU+AFC exposed a deliberate ploy to subvert the public procurement procedures. Minister Harmon and subsequently Minister Jordon in their defense asserted that the negotiation with the insurance company took ten months. Whether it took ten months, or ten weeks or ten minutes is irrelevant in terms of the tangible elements of the transaction.

In fact, this piece of information makes the matter even more egregious. The fact that it took ten months to negotiate the deal demonstrates that there was no public emergency and, therefore, should have followed the standard procurement procedures of a public advertisement, a public tender and bidding process, with the attendant evaluation of submitted bids. This is the hallmark of transparency and accountability. The fact that in that ten-month-period a secret deal was being negotiated demonstrates intent to subvert the procurement procedure.

Minister Harmon asserted that about $17M of this amount will be deducted from the salaries of Ministers. This would mean given the number of ministers that each is paying about $30,000 per month. This does not materially change my story. The fact is that APNU+AFC negotiated a deal with an outlined insurance company and the payment to that company is a charge on the consolidated fund of Guyana. That fund is not owned by APNU+AFC or by any minister. It is owned by the people of Guyana; President Granger and his Cabinet have temporary control of the consolidated fund. But that control is subjected to a number of laws and procedures. These laws and procedures were knowingly and deliberately flouted and there was a concerted effort to keep the transaction secret.

The confirmation that the deal was in negotiation for ten months before it was signed meant that it was being negotiated before the 2017 budget was finalized. It was never made a part of the 2017 budget and it was never mentioned during the budget debate. In fact, during the consideration of the budget estimates for the Ministry of the Presidency, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Public Health no mention of health insurance as an additional benefit for ministers and members of the Cabinet was mentioned. Clearly, the deal was consummated in deception.

During the budget debate, Minister Patterson castigated those who criticized VAT on medical bills declaring that the government provides free health care and those who want private health care must pay for it. Should this not apply to Ministers? Weeks prior to my exposure of the transaction, Minister Harmon, referring to overseas trips by Ministers seeking health care, stated that Government has not been paying for such overseas health care.

He was adamant that ministers were paying for their own health care whenever they accessed such care. This was a total falsehood. The auditor general would be able to confirm that Ministers and their families flew to Ireland, Cuba, the USA, CARICOM countries for health care and the Government paid for these trips, not only for the expense of the ministers, but also for their families accompanying them. In one instance payment was also made for a private physician to accompany one of the ministers to Ireland.

I have no problem that ministers sought overseas health care and that government paid for such care. My problem is that at least two ministers publicly denied that Government paid for ministers to access overseas care and paid also for first class traveling of other family members who accompanied them. This was a total falsehood and there was no necessity for such misinformation.

I reiterate that I have no problem that the Government has embarked on a health insurance scheme for ministers. I even support such a move. My problem is that it was done as a secret arrangement and it flouted the laws of Guyana. In addition, this is an important policy decision.

The Government of Guyana has never procured health insurance benefits for its Ministers or for any other public servant. If APNU+AFC decides that this is a policy they want to introduce and enforce, then it should follow the required rules for a policy adoption, such as a gazetted change in benefits for ministers . Policies cannot be wily-nilly introduced at someone’s whims and fancies.

There is a perverted view of this administration that policies can be made up without any public discussion and public information. APNU+AFC seems totally comfortable in introducing new polices in secret, without any transparency and accountability. While that may be easy for them, it is unacceptable in a democratic society and it is illegal.

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