Kampala — All patients, including Members of Parliament, who require taxpayers' money for lifesaving treatment abroad, will soon have to look elsewhere for funds after Cabinet resolved to compel public officials who need specialised care to seek the required services from a private facility on Entebbe Road.
Ms Enrica Pinetti, the chairperson of the Italian-based Finasi Company, is in the process of setting up a specialised high-tech hospital at Lubowa on Entebbe Road with the backing of government.
Cabinet on Monday heard that the facility will have specialised units, modern equipment and experienced doctors to handle any health complication. Finasi Company also provides healthcare facilities, projects and supplies.
Cabinet sources quoted the President as saying: "This hospital will help us to treat specialised cases at home instead of donating money to other countries... The hospital will treat cases such as cancer, brain tumour, kidney and other specialised diseases that cannot be treated in Uganda currently."
A senior official in the Health ministry told Daily Monitor that the Cabinet meeting banned the use of taxpayers' money to treat public officials abroad and confirmed the allocation of the 30-acre land to the Italian investor.
Cabinet also heard that the investor had secured the funding and that construction of the new hospital starts next week.
The project is expected to be completed in two years, but the Cabinet ban on treatment abroad will take effect on the day the facility officially opens its doors to the public.
However, the Cabinet meeting according to other sources, only reluctantly agreed to bond public officials who required specialised medical care abroad to Ms Pinetti as guarantee for a $300m (about Shs1.1 trillion) loan she picked from a German bank.
Some ministers led by Ms Sarah Opendi reportedly opposed the move, but First Lady Janet Museveni, who is also the Education minister, and Mr Gabriel Ajedra (General duties , ministry of Finance) backed the move.
Those in favour of the ban cited more than Shs30b the government spends on treatment of public officials abroad every year and asked their colleagues to support the project.
Some ministers also reportedly rejected a complete ban on treatment abroad and demanded that for the speciality which will not be available at Ms Pinetti's hospital, public officials should be allowed to seek treatment abroad.
Where the new hospital lacks a particular speciality, sources told Daily Monitor that the hospital management will write to the Medical Board, confirming the gap before authorisation is given to travel or not to travel overseas for specialised treatment.
The President, according to sources, said government will sign an MoU with Ms Pinetti, guaranteeing that all government patients that require treatment abroad will be referred to the new hospital at Lubowa.
Mr David Bahati, the State Minister of Finance for Planning, made a presentation to Cabinet on the proposal.
Cabinet also resolved that the investor will use her own money to develop and operate the hospital for eight years and then transfer the facility to government. It is anticipated that after eight years, the Italian investor should have recouped her money with profits.
Cabinet is also seeking to reduce the cost for specialised treatment in developed countries such as the United Kingdom, India and USA.
Independent health sector players, who talked to Daily Monitor, have advised government to focus on the National Health Insurance Scheme for all Ugandans.
They said the country's sick healthcare system makes it a matter of life or death for some patients, especially government officials and connected individuals, to seek medical care outside the country.
Uganda's 40 million people depend on what MPs on the health committee have called "a strained and struggling healthcare system" that falls short of the Maputo Protocol of 2003.
Under the protocol, African governments agreed to commit 15 per cent of their annual national budgets to the health sector. But more and more, in Uganda, especially the rich and authorised public officials are finding a way out, and are increasingly seeking treatment abroad, which government now seeks to limit.
Dr Ekwaro Obuku, the president of the Uganda Medical Association, yesterday said medical tourism is a consequence of globalisation and that Americans, Britons and citizens of high income countries are touring India, Israel and other lower income countries for medical treatment.
"These market forces can be minimised but not stopped but the bigger task is that government stops taxpayers' money financing private health insurance schemes for government employees in State House, Cabinet, Parliament, Statutory Authorities, and the UPDF," Dr Obuku said.
He said this money should be pooled into National Health Insurance Scheme with all government employees receiving treatment at the Mulago hospital and other public facilities.
"Government should prioritise healthcare for the greatest majority that is the poor and the very poor Ugandans," he added.
Dr Kenneth Omona, the ruling NRM party deputy treasurer, agreed with Dr Obuku's diagnosis of the country's health sector challenges.
Dr Omona preferred that government injects more funds into Mulago hospital and other public facilities.
"How many Ugandans will afford Lubowa hospital? The answer is in the health financing and the best solution is in health insurance," Dr Omona said.
"We must focus on better health for all Ugandans. Most health tourists who go outside the country seeking better healthcare are the well-to-do and the well placed in government, yet the big labour force is still crying to access better healthcare," he added.
Dr Medard Bitekyerezo, the National Drugs Authority board chairman, said "if services are available in the country with the required specialists, I would strongly agree that we treat our people here and only send those with more complicated cases abroad. This reduces significantly the government's expenditure and I am glad to see that government is bringing these services nearer to the people of Uganda."
SHS30B SPENT ANNUALLY
In August 2017, Health State minister Sarah Opendi, indicated the government spends Shs30b annually on sending ministers, MPs and senior government officers for treatment abroad. She had also promised to stop sending government officials abroad after the completion of Mulago and the new women hospital. This has since changed and government is now looking at the completion of Lubowa hospital. The Auditor General in his December 2016 report to Parliament said from 2014 to 2016, government spent least Shs10.1b on treatment of 140 top government officials abroad.
Health officials' take ON lubowa FACILITY
Ministry of Heath spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona: "Upon its completion, the facility is expected to attend to patients [especially government] who have been seeking medical treatment abroad. The plan is to have the investor construct a highly specialised hospital which will attract patients from the region in form of medical tourism." Although Cabinet talked of six years, Mr Ainebyoona said the investor will run the facility for the first eight years and then hand it over to government.
Dr Anthony Mbonye, the former Acting Director General of Health Services: "Government can decide to treat patients at those hospitals if they have the specialised services. But people who wish to be treated abroad or anywhere it's their right if they have their money to pay. No one forces people to be treated in a certain hospital. The medical board would have to make decisions based on case by case basis... if government decides, people can be forced to there [Lubowa Hospital] especially if it's government paying."