‘I have nothing to hide’ –Lawrence welcomes probe into $605M emergency drug purchase

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PUBLIC Health Minister, Volda Lawrence, is insisting that the purchase of some $605M worth of medical drugs for the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC) was above board; that she has nothing to hide, and would welcome an investigation into the transaction.

“I have absolutely no problem with scrutiny,” Minister Lawrence told journalist Gordon Moseley, on a local radio programme on Monday. She said she has already invited the GPHC Board to investigate the matter as a follow up to ensuring that all correct procedures were observed. Minister Lawrence has nonetheless reminded Guyanese that she is responsible for their well-being and will make decisions to their benefit. “I’m responsible for their health and I am responsible for ensuring that all the medical facilities are operating at a level where they [citizens] can walk in and be served.”
Lawrence in defending the decision said it benefitted the institution in tackling drug shortages and ensuring quality stock within the system. The minister has described the purchase as an “emergency” after a prolonged period of drug shortages. Media reports show that between February 7 and March 6, 2017, there had been reports of drug shortages in Regions Two, Three, Six and Seven. Minister Lawrence, who recently assumed responsibility over the health sector, has however come in for criticisms for what is being described as “sole-sourcing” and a failure to utilise the Public Procurement system.
Minister Lawrence has remained firm however that the decision to push ahead with the $605million pharmaceutical purchase was done in the interest of citizens. During a morning interview on the radio show ‘Jump Start,’ Lawrence reminded citizens that the drug purchase was an, “…emergency to fill a gap that was created because of shortfall by (drug) suppliers in 2016.”
The Health Minister went on to explain that the Auditor General’s 2015 report addressed in detail companies that failed to supply drugs that they were paid to deliver and this led to a national shortage, where, at one point, the GPHC was unable to provide more than 200 types of medication. This situation on many occasions forced health authorities to make local drug purchases that were often high priced, the minister continued. It was noted too that some of the pharmacies selling the high priced drugs to the health sector were also owned and operated by the same persons who failed on their contractual agreements to provide the drugs.
Under the last government, there were numerous charges of unprincipled behaviour in the procurement of drugs. The New GPC, whose owner was said to be close to the then government, was accused of getting the lion’s share in drug contracts, while many small rackets were taking place within the system, allowing for drug shortages that caused price hikes. “So if persons bought a lot of drugs and have it on the market to sell at high prices they won’t be happy that we are stocking up because they will be left with it and it could be many other things why we are hearing this hue and cry,” the Minister said.
Outside of this, Minister Lawrence noted that since taking over the public health portfolio she has noticed that in acquiring medication for the sector, apart from the factors that contribute to drug shortages, poor quality drugs has been an issue. She said there were complaints of poor quality drugs being purchased and getting into the system. The Minister has thus welcomed any investigation into the fast-tracking of the drug purchase; confident that the process was necessary and above board.
Former Auditor General, Anand Goolsarran, has called on the Public Procurement Commission to launch an investigation into the drug purchase, while the Guyana Trade Union Congress (TUC) has called on the government to immediately investigate the minister’s actions. The Opposition People’s Progressive Party has also taken the opportunity to call out the minister saying the drug purchase was a “reckless use” of public funds.