14 February 2017

South Africa: Government Implementing Life Esidimeni Recommendations

Pretoria — Police are still in the process of identifying 19 bodies of mentally ill patients who died in Gauteng between March and December 2016.

Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on Tuesday said police began forensic investigations and efforts to identify the bodies in September 2016.

The Minister was briefing media on progress made in the implementation of recommendations made by the Health Ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, following the death of 94 people, who died after being moved from Life Esidimeni to unlicensed NGOs.

Life Esidimeni was contracted to the Gauteng government for nearly four decades. However, around 1 900 patients were moved from Life Esidimeni under the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project. This project has since been de-established following the recommendations of the Ombusdman.

In his report into the patient deaths, the Ombudsman also recommended that the South African Police Service (SAPS) must share their findings and outcomes of forensic investigations with the relevant agencies so that appropriate action, where deemed justified, can be taken.

"We are cooperating with the police in this regard and we will furnish whatever information and access whenever needed," Minister Motsoaledi said.

The Ombudsman made 18 recommendations to the State as a whole and six recommendations specific to the Gauteng Department of Health.

"The recommendations to the Gauteng Department of Health are mostly medium- to long-term and are about system improvement. The new MEC, Dr Gwen Ramokgopa, is already busy with them," the Minister said.

According to the Minister, about 11 recommendations have so far been implemented since the report was released earlier this month. Work is underway to implement the rest of the recommendations.

Relocation of patients

Since the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project has been halted, government is hard at work to move patients to appropriately equipped facilities.

The Ombudsman also recommended that the National Department of Health review, de-register and close down all 27 NGOs involved in the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project that do not meet care standards.

Minister Motsoaledi said about 27 NGOs, with a total of 42 facilities, were visited by a task team he appointed earlier this month.

"To date, we can confirm that seven facilities have been closed and no longer house any mental health patients," he said.

The closures started in October last year when the Ministerial Task Team visited 17 facilities ahead of the Ombudsman's investigation.

Minister Motsoaledi said since the closure of Life Esidimeni and the facilities operated by the NGOs, mental health patients were transferred to 10 hospitals within the Province.

"As it is, 600 mental health patient are under supervised medical care in these hospitals. The remaining NGOs that were housing the Life Esidimeni patients that have been assessed last week will be closed immediately."

The Minister said the closure of these facilities was due to the safety and security of patients and not about profit making.

"To ensure the safety of mental health patients, taking into account the concerns of the families and the patients' medical condition and status, the transfers out of NGOs and into care facilities will be systematic. It will not be rushed and planning will be meticulous.

"The interest of mental health [patients] is of paramount importance and we dare not repeat the deadly mistaken of a hurried and chaotic ... job," the Minister said.

Teams including officials, experts and family representatives have also visited and assessed the facilities that will be receiving the transferred mental health patients. The facilities visited are both in the public and private sector. They have all been inspected for compliance.

"I have to mention that contrary to popular sentiment, even Life Esidimeni is no longer immediately available to accept these patients because for about nine months, they have de-established their operations and they need time to restore these facilities to their former condition.

"Apart from Life Esidimeni, another private sector facility, which has been visited and inspected, is the former stepdown facility in Selby, which was also closed by the provincial department sometime back.

"We believe we will be able to meet the Ombudsman's deadline of 45 days."

He said the transfers will be supervised by the professional and technical teams, as this should have been the case even before the Gauteng Mental Health Marathon Project started. He said patients' families will be part of the decision making process and the actual process of transfer.

The Minister and his team are expected to meet with the representatives of affected families on 18 February to engage and facilitate healing.

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