Namibia: Govt Probes 'Useless' Health Machines

17 September 2019

THE health ministry is investigating how the government was made to buy 25 "substandard" pregnancy monitoring machines from China, which have remained unused four years later.

The health ministry's executive director, Ben Nangombe, described this transaction as "an outcome of less than honest acts and conduct".

The national workers' welfare state agency, the Social Security Commision (SSC), bought 25 ultrasound machines - used to monitor the development of unborn babies - for N$3 million [about N$120 000 per machine].

It donated them to the health ministry for distribution to health centres across the country.

Doctors have, however, refused to use the machines since they were delivered to the government in 2016.

The health ministry said the functionalities of the machines were not according to the specifications they provided.

In fact, a doctor, who declined to be named, told The Namibian last week that the equipment had switching problems, and could not assess the development of the foetus.

There are now allegations that some health ministry officials colluded with the SSC to use taxpayers' money to buy the Chinese machines.

The machines are now gathering dust in the Windhoek Central Hospital.

Nangombe confirmed the investigation over the weekend when asked by The Namibian why no one was held accountable for purchasing poor-quality equipment.

"The procurement process for the machines will be reviewed, and where procedures are found to have been flouted, those responsible will be held to account," he said.

He added that the review process has started, and would be completed by the end of next month.

Nangombe said the health ministry and the SSC are unhappy with the way the procurement of the machines was handled by officials involved in the process.

"It is indeed unfortunate that the machines were found to be less than user-friendly and the picture quality (image resolution) is not what would be desired," he stated.

The executive director added: "We have a duty not to compromise the health of our people in any way. Shortcomings were identified".

He said the specifications by the health ministry indicated that they wanted fit-for-purpose, user-friendly and high-quality machines.

Nangombe confirmed that the doctors had issues with the machines.

"Yes, shortcomings were pointed out when the machines were tested before distribution to health centres around the country. The machines, given to us as a donation, have been sitting in the corridors at the Windhoek Central Hospital," he said.

The top health administrator continued that "it should not be taken that just because the ministry took possession of the machines, it has accepted them as delivered. It is for that reason that they have not yet been commissioned. And it is for the same reason that we are exploring solutions to the problem".

"We are now trying to fix a problem that, all things being equal, could be described as an outcome of less than honest acts and conduct," he reiterated.

The executive director said technicians and doctors have been appointed to see how the machines can be made useful.

"Our technicians have been instructed to work with doctors and relevant persons to see what can be done to render the machines operational. [...] The useful thing to do was to engage our engineers and technicians to see what can be done," Nangombe continued.

The machines were bought through Blackstone Investment, a company owned by businessman Ailemo Lukas, who insisted two years ago that the machines were in perfect condition and usable.

The Namibian reported two years ago that there were allegations that Lukas is related to a top official in the health ministry or SSC. Lukas dodged this question, saying he did not understand where his "relation with anyone fits in".

He was only paid half the N$3 million charged, and at some point threatened to sue the SSC.

It's unclear if he was paid the balance, but the machines continue to divide opinion in the ministry.

A health official familiar with the matter told The Namibian last week that the machines are still in boxes in the hospital's basement, and not being used because certain applications cannot be completed using the machines.

"The machines have been in boxes for over two years, and have never been used," the source stated.

He said when the machines were sponsored and donated from the SSC to the health ministry, they were just sent to the Windhoek Central Hospital to see whether they could be used.

"They were earmarked to be used in clinics for obstetrics and gynaecology, but before payment could be made to the company, hospital management was tasked to see whether the machines were functioning," he explained.

The source added that the task was given to the former head of the obstetrics and gynaecology department, Dr Shonag Mackenzie, who found that the machines were substandard, and certain applications could not be used.

Mackenzie's contract was not renewed, and she left the hospital in 2017.

It is not clear why her contract was not renewed since she was regarded as one of the hardest working professionals at the hospital.

Mackenzie is credited with improving the Windhoek Central Hospital, which houses the country's largest maternity ward.

A source said doctors are going the usual route in checking and diagnosing pregnant women because of the dysfunctional machines.

"The machines were meant to help in the diagnosis of patients who were about to give birth, or to evaluate their pregnancy. It never materialised. People now go the normal routes and do normal tests," he observed.

He added that it was only a few weeks ago that Nangombe requested the hospital's management to look into whether the machines can be upgraded to a usable standard.

"The people came, looked at the machines, and Dr Edward Fynn was requested by the Social Security Commission to look into it and advise on the way forward. In the meantime, the machines are just standing in boxes," he emphasised.

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