TUESDAY, 09 OCTOBER 2012
~ MPs question minister about health-care issues ~
PHILIPSBURG–A meeting of the Central Committee of Parliament on the health situation at St. Maarten Medical Center (SMMC) and its impact on social and labour policies continued on Monday despite a request by Health Minister Cornelius de Weever for a postponement or for Members of Parliament (MPs) to submit their questions in writing.
De Weever made the request due to “the sensitivity” of today’s court case between SMMC and the Inspectorate of Public Health. SMMC had filed an administrative appeal against the Inspectorate as well as an administrative injunction case requesting the Court to suspend the higher supervision decision by the inspectorate pending the outcome of the administrative appeal.
The minister said it would “not be in our best interest” to “discuss the details, policies, impact or strategies” before the case was heard. “The lawyers will present their case and I am sure that this is the beginning of inevitable change that will come to SMMC and health care in general,” he said.
However, several MPs objected to the minister’s request and indicated that Monday’s meeting had been duly called and should proceed as planned. Several MPs said that while they understood that the minister would be unable to answer certain questions in light of the court case, there were other issues that could be addressed.
When the meeting was initially scheduled, the minister had written Parliament Chairman Rodolphe Samuel requesting that the meeting be postponed until after the court hearing. However, Samuel denied this request in a written response to the minister dated October 4 – a move that drew commendations from some MPs who said such a decision could not be made unilaterally.
Some MPs from the opposition benches also raised concerns about what they considered the lengthy time period some ministers were taking to respond to their questions.
Monday’s meeting proceeded with MPs quizzing the minister about a range of issues regarding the Medical Center and labour issues.
The 68 questions posed by United People’s (UP) party MP Jules James drew sharp reactions from some MPs in the governing coalition, one of whom classified 99 per cent of James’ questions as “irrelevant.”
James’ list of questions included requests for the minister to explain what was causing the delay in the hospital expansion; when the minister had become aware of this expansion; and to provide Parliament with copies of all correspondence between SMMC and the health ministry, including with attorneys.
The minister was also asked whether a request had been made for members of SMMC’s Supervisory Council to resign and if so, what had prompted this request, on what basis it had been made and whether the minister was in a position to make such a request.
James also wanted details on the current capacity of the hospital and whether the minister believed a larger hospital was needed because of the population growth in St. Maarten. He also asked the minister to indicate whether he had learnt about SMMC’s expansion before or after his “scouting trip” to South Africa with other MPs. He also asked if the expansion was a priority for the minister and if this was the case, what De Weever had done to expedite this expansion. Other questions posed by James related to how much subsidy government was giving SMMC and whether De Weever was playing “politics” with SMMC.
James also asked the minister to indicate how he rated SMMC, what were some of the specialists that he would like to see working there; how many Registered Nurses were in service and whether this was sufficient. It was also asked whether the filling of Great Salt Pond for a drag-racing facility was more important at this time than the expansion of SMMC.
James said UP would be calling more ministers to Parliament and asking them “a barrage of questions,” because, according to him, ministers were not answering questions from MPs in a timely manner.
Democratic Party (DP) Member of Parliament Roy Marlin reacted strongly to James’ line of questioning. Alluding to the saying, “One crazy man can ask more questions than 10 wise men,” Marlin said most of the questions asked were irrelevant. He said the issue at SMMC warranted all 15 MPs’ coming together to help the minister bring about positive changes at the hospital – that improvements were needed at SMMC and this is what focus should be placed on. He said the minister was being questioned about issues while he had no authority at the medical facility. He said the situation at SMMC was such that SMMC General Director and Board of Directors President Dr. George Scot could tell Parliament that he didn’t have to meet with them, “forcing” the calling of a parliamentary inquiry. “We wasted about 45 minutes of the people’s time, asking questions that are irrelevant,” the MP contended. He said MPs should be putting their “brains” together to talk about how to “force” changes at SMMC.
He said there were issues at SMMC that needed to be addressed. While most hospitals have separate female and male wards, this is not the case at SMMC. The SMMC Director spends half of his time abroad and half at SMMC, Marlin said. He asked whether everyone should “sit back” and allow this situation continue.
UP MP Gracita Arrindell said MPs were being paid to perform their duties and it was their prerogative to ask as many questions as they chose. She asked De Weever to give an update on the national health-care policy, to say how long the approval process took for employment permits and to list the medical credentials for health care workers, among other matters.
On the issue of receiving answers, she recommended that a system be put in place to track questions sent to government and remind ministers of their responsibilities to respond in a timely manner.
Independent MP Romain Laville said De Weever did not have the power to tell SMMC what to do and the focus of the meeting should have been what Parliament could do to help the minister prevent a health crisis in the country. He said too that the situation at SMMC was similar to that of utilities company GEBE, in which people were afraid to speak about the issues. “We cannot address the health issue in St. Maarten in the rightful way, because some of us don’t go to the SMMC for treatment so we don’t know what other people in St. Maarten are going through.”
Laville also urged some of his fellow MPs not to be used. He said some MPs had been given papers with questions to “trap” the minister and some of them did not even understand what they were asking.
UP MP Johan “Janchi” Leonard later said that they had been given questions to ask by the people. Laville said it was “petty nonsense” to mention the race track in the context of the hospital expansion.
Bridge to nowhere
Independent MP Frans Richardson said UP leader Theo Heyliger should have used some of the US $150 million that was being hidden for the “bridge to nowhere” for the hospital expansion. He said there were millions of passengers coming to St. Maarten by cruise and air and “at least the previous coalition partner should have come and said we would put the bridge aside” and invested in health. They “could have made a nice injection to SMMC with the same funds from the creation of a bridge to nowhere. Is a bridge more important that the investment in a hospital? Does a bridge give more return than the health of the people of this island?” Frans Richardson asked. The independent MP urged De Weever to present his vision for health care. This vision, he added, should take into account residents and the many visitors to the island.
UP MP Dr. Ruth Douglass said SMMC had been facing some “serious issues” that must be dealt with. She said as a medical practitioner it was “alarming” for her to listen to what was being said about health care. She asked what was government’s health-care standard for St. Maarten and how SMMC rated against it. She also enquired what powers the current inspectorate had over the management of SMMC and how this power was exercised. She also asked how many complaints were received by the inspectorate; how the recent higher supervision would affect SMMC’s planned expansion; and what were the specifics of higher supervision, among other questions.
UP MP Silvia Meyers asked the minister to provide the inspectorate’s report on the hospital. She also asked how many inspections had been conducted on SMMC; what were the results and when was the first time SMMC had been inspected. She also asked some labour-related questions.
Also speaking at the meeting were National Alliance (NA) MPs George Pantophlet, Hyacinth Richardson and Dr. Lloyd Richardson, independent MP Patrick Illidge and earlier in the meeting Democratic Party (DP) MP Leroy de Weever. The meeting which began at 10:00am was adjourned around 2:00pm, when another meeting with Education Minister Silveria Jacobs was scheduled. De Weever is to appear before Parliament for the continuation of the meeting within a week.