Dominic Ukpong, a medical doctor and Commissioner for Health in Akwa Ibom State, speaks with ANIEFIOK UDONQUAK on the issues surrounding the recent closure of Ibom Multi-specialty Hospital in Uyo.
What were the circumstances that led to the closure of the hospital?
It is not the state government that was running the hospital. It was Cardiocare Medical Services Limited which had an agreement with the state government and that agreement handed over the running of the hospital to the company. Cardiocare Medical Services decided to terminate its services.
Was the state government indebted to the company?
To the best of my knowledge, government did the best it could and as much as necessary, sometimes beyond what was expected of government, to support them in accordance with the agreement and they kept on coming for more. About July this year, at the instance of the Senate minority leader and the former governor of Akwa Ibom State, Godswill Akpabio, we had a meeting with them, myself on behalf of the state government, the state attorney general and the top officer in the Foreign Direct Investment office with their top management. In that meeting, we reviewed what they have been doing. It was agreed that we were not satisfied with the way the hospital was run but they complained that they did not have money and I told them that the state government has been giving them money.
Could you give details of what the state government has given to the company?
We have given them N250 million before, we gave them N50 million after, and we gave them N30 million repeatedly. At the same time, we were the ones providing diesel in their quarters. A lot of things were supplied to them. When the Senate minority leader asked them whether the state government owed them, they said yes. From the last emergency we had during the Reigners Bible Church incident, they brought a bill that was astronomical. As a medical doctor, I looked at the bills and they were not realistic. I told them what I considered as the appropriate bill. I was there as part of the people managing those patients in that hospital during that period. They added extra N50 million on top of the bill. The Senate minority leader said we should give it to them and we said, ‘Okay, we will give them’. The bill came to about N150 million. They also complained that one of their equipment was faulty and needed about N28 million to repair, we said, ‘Okay, we will give you money to repair’. So that would have been N178 million, but the Senate minority leader, who has a lot of passion for the hospital, said, ‘Look, the compound is overgrown with grass, let us add some money for them to be able to keep the lawns clean’. We agreed and they said N2 million. Someone had hinted me that their ambulance was not working. So we told them to use some money out of the N2 million, and they said they could use N1.5 million to repair it and use N.5 million to clean the compound. So altogether it came to N180 million. Before we left the meeting, the agreement was that there should be a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), jointly drafted, on how to run the place because the former MoU was not possible to implement based on the economic recession in the country. By the time that MoU was written, oil prices were good, everything was running fine, it was a dollar-based discussion at that time. They complained that they could not meet some of their responsibilities because of the economic situation. That was not the responsibility of government. Normally, we should not even bother. They should go ahead and run the place; government had addressed a lot of those issues for them. So in the same light, the Senate minority leader said, ‘I was there when this MoU was signed, you can see that this thing cannot work. We cannot operate like this’. So we set it aside and agreed to come up with a new MoU that is workable so that the hospital could go ahead. They did not say no, they never argued at all. We had the money to be paid to them, a proposal for a new MoU, and they said, ‘We’ll like to scale down our activities in the hospital in view of the economic crunch’. So I said to them, ‘I want to have a clear definition of what you mean by scaling down activities, I want to have it in writing, what services you will be providing, so that if we want to give information to people, we can tell them these services are available. Let me know by writing the level of scaling down that you are going to make. Secondly, I want to have your price list for the various tests you do here and the various treatments. You go to various hospitals, they have prices for the different things that they do. When you go, they tell you this is what you are going to pay. So you have an idea of what you are going to pay, but your own is arbitrary. You charge bills that I cannot justify to anybody’. I told them I needed a price list, they did not say no. So we rose from that meeting only for me to receive their letter carefully excluding the aspect of the MoU that was proposed. They did come up with a proposal as was agreed, they did not send me their price list, and they did not send me their description of their scaling down of activities since that time. When I visited the place months afterwards, I found out that the compound was still unkempt, the grass was still very high and they said they cut the grass before but the rain brought them up again. Then the lawyer of the place asked me if I had got their letter and I said no. He informed me that they had terminated their services. I told him I had not got any email from them and he said they would send the letter to my office. A few days later I saw a letter dated September 21, where they stated that they would terminate their services by October 21. They asked that a team be constituted to take over the place. I quickly constituted a committee. The committee went there and saw that the place had been locked up and there was nobody working there. How do you take over from a locked up building – no staff? Even if you open the various departments, who is there to hand over to the person taking over? We are hoping they would be able to hand over properly. When you notify somebody of your intention to resign your job and you give one month notice, you continue to work till the last day, but if you are going to stop immediately, you pay one month in lieu of notice. They gave us a notice and they locked up immediately.
What is the way forward?
It is our property. That hospital is a very big asset not only to Akwa Ibom State but to the people of this country. The minister of health said so when he visited the place. We cannot let it go to waste. What we have decided is to get investors to look at it. We have been talking to very interested investors who want to come in to take over and bring good management. So investors are coming into it. Apparently a lot of money is going to be invested into it to reactivate it because they have run it down. Once that is done, the hospital will come alive again and begin to run.
Can the hospital ever be self-sustaining?
It is not an ordinary hospital; it is reference centre, a place that teaching hospitals and others are supposed to send in patients. Before you go there, a doctor has to refer you. It is not cheap. We are also pursuing our insurance scheme so that people don’t have to spend too much. The place will need money to run, so expect there will be charges.