Health laboratories back on even keel, minister says

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HEALTH Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says he has "righted the troubled ship" of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) as provinces are now paying their bills on time, and it is moving closer to resolving its disputes with Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

The NHLS is the backbone of the health system as it provides the blood tests needed to diagnose and monitor diseases ranging from HIV to cervical cancer. Not only do its facilities provide all the tests ordered for public sector patients, the military and prisons, but it also does highly specialised tests not available in the private sector.

For years it has battled to get provincial health departments to pay their bills on time, despite offering discounts for timely payments. The problems have been particularly acute with KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which both disputed the amounts the NHLS said they owed and refused to pay up. In March the NHLS told Parliament KwaZulu-Natal owed R3.289bn and Gauteng owed R1.092bn.

The cash crunch has strained the NHLS’s capacity to fulfil its responsibilities for research and training, hampered its capacity to maintain its infrastructure and triggered an exodus of staff.

In an interview with Business Day, Dr Motsoaledi said his department had worked closely with the Treasury, the NHLS and provincial health departments to resolve the billing problems. The national department had warned provinces that it would withhold conditional grants if they did not pay for current services. It did so with Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal last year.

Withholding funds should be treated as a last resort, Treasury spokeswoman Phumza Macanda said, and the Treasury had formally requested that provinces pay for current services while negotiations continued over historical debts.

Provincial health departments had funds to pay for the laboratory tests they needed. They under-spent their budgets for the 2014-15 fiscal year by R749m, she said.

By the beginning of this week provincial health departments had collectively paid R807.2m of the R898.2m billed since April 1, said Dr Motsoaledi.

The provinces with relatively modest historical debts, such as the Free State and North West, had made provision in their current budgets to pay their debts to the NHLS. Talks with KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were progressing well, he said.

The minister also said funding reform announced in the February Budget, which meant the NHLS now received a direct transfer for its national teaching and research functions, was just the first of a series of planned changes.

NHLS acting CEO Joyce Mogale said the institution’s capacity to provide services had never been threatened. "Like any organisation, we have hiccups, but we are more stable now than ever. We have committed professionals who really bend over backwards to get the job done," she said.

Source: Business Day Late Edition; 24-06-2015