Former Minister on the attack …”HEALTH PRESSURE”

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Government’s move to force medical students who benefited from the Government Assistance for Tuition Expenses (GATE) Programme to repay the fees if they do not work in the public health sector, amounts to an illegal act and reeks of an ongoing “dictatorship” trend of the Rowley-led regime, says Caroni East MP, Dr Tim Gopeesingh.

At a news conference on Friday, Dr Gopeesingh, who served as Minister of Education in the previous Kamla Persad-Bissessar Administration from 2010-2015, noted that the announced plans by Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh to divest majority shares of the yet unopened Couva Hospital to UWI, is also a highly suspicious move by the Government and one that demands a public explanation.

Dr Gopeesingh, a top medical specialist, also condemned the Health Minster again for his ongoing refusal to hire hundreds of locally trained medical doctors into the public health sector and instead employ foreign doctors, saying this amounted to nothing short of a Government policy of “political victimisation, political vindictiveness and spite.”

REPAYMENT OF GATE FEES UNLAWFUL

With regard to Deyalsingh’s statements that Cabinet had agreed to force medical students to repay their GATE fees if they refuse to take up public health sector jobs, Dr Gopeesingh said this was simply untenable and illegal.

He noted that the GATE contracts medical students signed were similar to those signed by every other GATE student in different academic fields of study and at various tertiary institutions, in that “there was no contractual obligation to take up jobs.”

“What about the thousands of other students who utilised GATE? Are they all also being asked to pay back the money? Some of them have private sector jobs and are not employed by the State,” he noted.

Slamming statements that medical students are refusing to take up jobs in the public health sector as a lie, Dr Gopeesingh said:

“First of all you’re not giving them jobs but asking them to pay back the GATE fees. You say they are refusing to take up jobs which is a lie and now you’re imposing this GATE (repayment fee) upon them and there was no contractual obligation to do this in the first place.

“A Government cannot change their contract midway or at the end of it. You have to tell them that they have to work and pay back the money from the outset.

“This was not part of the agreement when they received the GATE funding. You cannot change the goalpost at the end and this is unlawful to ask the students to pay back GATE. This dictatorship manner of the Government regarding this issue is unacceptable.”

DOCTORS FRUSTRATED

Dr Gopeesingh, a former lecturer at the UWI Medical School, said the Health Minister’s clams that doctors are unwilling to work in rural hospitals is simply not true.

He said he has spoken to scores of doctors who all indicated that they are willing to take up employment at any location in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Some have called me directly expressing their frustration and disappointment in not having any jobs. Some are working in pharmacies, some are selling in service stations and they have spent six years having been trained and taxpayers money has been spent for their training.

“Many had received Open Scholarships and Additional Scholarships on which they have to come back and work for a period but the State is not giving them the employment for them to fulfil their contracts,” he said.

“So when the Minister (Deyalsingh) speaks about how they do not want to go to the rural areas he has to come clean on that and show us the statistics and show us how many people have refused to go to the rural areas to work.

“And he (Deyalsingh) keeps saying it, which we believe to be a blatant lie because doctors are eager to take up appointment anywhere to continue their training, so even if it is in the District Health Offices they still have to look after patients with all sort of medical problems,” Dr Gopeesingh said.

Noting that last weekend he raised the issue of 300 doctors waiting for jobs in the public health sector while there are 1840 foreign doctors registered in the hospitals, as well as locally trained nurses also not being employed, he said that under new regulations, these doctors are unable to get licenses to practise in countries like Canada, the US and UK so they are trapped here, unemployed and frustrated.

He dismissed claims by Deyalsingh that there are not enough specialists to fill various fields, saying:

“I can tell you now there are five neurosurgeons in Trinidad who want to work in the public hospitals but have not been offered jobs.”

He noted that the public health facilities are not equipped with proper equipment and crucial working conditions needed to safely and effectively perform specialist surgeries and this is causing local specialist doctors to refuse to work since patients’ lives are seriously compromised under such conditions.

He said foreign Cuban doctors being hired in these posts are working under the same dangerous conditions and patients’ lives thus remain at serious risk.

QUESTIONS ON UWI OWNERSHIP

Dr Gopeesingh also condemned the Cabinet move, as announced by Deyalsingh, to form a Special Purpose Company with UWI and the State which will give UWI 51 per cent majority shares of the $2BTT Couva Hospital.

He noted that this hospital was built as a public medical institution under the previous Kamla Persad-Bissessar Government with brand new, state of the art medical equipment and facilities such as MRI and CT Scans.

“So is the Rowley Government telling the population that taxpayers who have paid and continue to pay to the value of $2BTT for this Couva Hospital you’re now taking and giving that to UWI with 51 per cent majority shares?

“Is this a gift to UWI? For what reason? And for what purpose and where have negotiations ensued for the decision to form this special purpose company?

“It was mentioned that the TT Government owes UWI approximately $250M. So are you taking a $2 billion institution to pay off UWI? What value is this bringing to our citizens? Is it UWI St Augustine or UWI the regional institution which comprises a number of countries in the Caribbean?” Dr Gopeesingh said.

“This calls for answers by this Government which refuses to come clean on any of these matters; a Government which lacks the transparency and integrity in the conduct of any of its affairs regarding almost any of the decisions that it has made,” he noted.

“I believe that this is criminal in nature. It lacks the integrity in the Code of Procurement process and procurement practise and we call on this Rowley Government to come clean about how you can take $2B of taxpayers’ money and just give it to an institution as majority shareholder,” he added.

ROWLEY GOVERNMENT WITHOUT A HEALTH PLAN

Slamming the Rowley Government for being completely devoid of any plan for the health sector, Dr Gopeesingh pointed out that in its three years in office, it has significantly flipped-flopped on the Couva Hospital.

He noted that each time the Opposition UNC asked about the Government’s refusal to open the new hospital so that the people of particularly South and Central Trindad could benefit from its much needed additional health facilities, the Rowley regime has given a different answer.

He said they first said it was a construction site, then they “changed their tune” and said there were not enough doctors and nurses to staff it, “then said they want to have private sector/public sector partnership, then they said next they are waiting on the Welsh report,” he noted.

“They went into Government without any preparation for running the health sector, they waited two plus years for the Welsh report. The Welsh report has come and gone and we have heard nothing more about it.

“Then they came and said the Couva Hospital is going to be an Offshore Medical Facility. Where is that now? Then they said that they’re going to go into the PPP model with some international health organisation. Where is that organisation? Where is it based? Who is it?” he added.

“So they have made about five different statements on the Couva Hospital and now the sixth one came out yesterday where they said they were going to give it to UWI to run the institution,” Dr Gopeesingh noted.

“They have changed almost for the last three years and we believe at the end of five years the Couva Hospital will remain idle, with very expensive medical equipment laying idle and losing their guarantee while people are losing their lives and people’s healthcare deteriorating across the country.

“So we have modern equipment, MRI, CT scans etc going to waste while people are waiting to have these tests done in other institutions,” he noted.

UNCONSTITUTIONAL MOVE

Dr Gopeesingh also condemned the Rowley regime for announcing an intended policy to make patients pay to use the Couva Hospital if and when it is opened.

“What differentiates the Couva Hospital from the San Fernando, Port of Spain, Mt Hope and Sangre Grande General Hospitals; the POS General Hospitals when patients there are receiving their just due i.e. medical attention and medical care?” he asked.

“What is it about the Couva hospital that you want them to pay for? So you are asking patients to pay for service at Couva?

“This is just political victimisation and political vindictiveness and spite by this Rowley Government to not ever contemplate opening the Couva Hospital,” he noted.

“And when we had asked them in Parliament whether patients had to pay they refused to answer; now they have been thrown into a defensive position they’re saying patients have to pay.

“Patients have been paying health surcharge for years and years. Patients are paying their taxes and you’re asking them to pay for services at the Couva Hospital now?

“So you want to spite the people of Central and South Trinidad most of whom will be receiving their treatment there?” he said.

“What is it that this Government has against the people of South and Central Trinidad and even some people of North Trinidad would have gone down to Couva to receive the type of specialised attention that we had indicated we would provide.

“For all these years patients have not had to pay for public health facilities.

“So this Government has to answer as to their decision about the Couva Hospital.

“It is criminal in nature. People are paying Health Surcharge and you cannot impose a charge on citizens to pay for healthcare in Trinidad and Tobago. Constitutionally you are mandated to provide proper, free healthcare under our democratic system for all citizens,” Dr Gopeesingh said.

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DR TIM GOPEESINGH

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