The doctors’ union, which wants the transfer of three State hospitals to be put on hold, has not been told whether the new American healthcare company has taken over from Vitals Global Healthcare or not.

On one hand the government is saying that it is a closed deal while on the other hand an investor filed a second request for a court injunction to stop the transfer, Medical Association of Malta general secretary Martin Balzan told The Sunday Times of Malta.

Steward was meant to be “on the ground” last week, according to government statements. But little beyond that is known.

The Health Ministry yesterday failed to answer questions about the matter, noting instead that it was meeting the doctors tomorrow.

The MAM is not only unaware of whether Steward Health Care has actually taken over from VGH but was also left in the dark about the contents of the public-private partnership for the operation of the hospitals – St Luke’s, Karen Grech and Gozo General.

VGH took the 30-year concession for the hospitals in 2015 but sold it to Steward just 21 months into its operation.

MAM is calling on the government to retract its consent for the transfer and consult with it first, in line with the law.

The government gave its consent to the transfer without providing the association with a six weeks’ notice, in breach of their collective agreement, Dr Balzan is insisting.

The government will find itself in a very difficult position where it can be blackmailed

“It is of no use to see the transfer contracts after they were signed, as the government is suggesting. We are therefore asking for the transfer to be put on hold, the consent to be retracted, the collective agreement honoured and MAM consulted.”

In principle, MAM is against the transfer because although it agrees with a lease and maintenance PPP, it is against the transfer of the hospitals’ operation to the private sector.

“We are in favour of a PPP where the operations remain in the hands of the government, because once the private sector has control over operations, the government will find itself in a very difficult position where it can be blackmailed. This is in the interest of the government, the patients and doctors,” Dr Balzan said.

MAM wants the government to wait for the National Audit Office’s investigation of the deal between the government and VGH before considering the transfer.

Earlier this month, the Times of Malta reported that the NAO has yet to start investigating the deal, with the Auditor General still working on another major investigation into the deal between Electrogas and the government over the new Delimara power plant.

“Vitals seems to have collapsed – it was handed over €60 million and has very little to show for it. It seems that the deal was flawed and we are risking that the Steward deal suffers the same fate in two years’ time,” Dr Balzan said.

Although the people running the hospitals have changed, the contract remained the same, and this does not safeguard the national interest, he added.

Doctors plan to hold one-day industrial action on Tuesday, but a meeting with Health Minister Chris Fearne is scheduled for a few hours earlier, on Monday.

industrial action in the health sector is regulated by a section on essential services and MAM will ensure that no patient suffers or is harmed. MAM notified the government about the action on Friday but it will announce the directives on Monday.

“If the government, which is resorting to threats, had the patients’ interest at heart, it would immediately open an investigation into the €60 million that went down the drain, and not try to stop industrial action after it failed to respect a collective agreement,” Dr Balzan insisted.

The Health Ministry was asked by The Sunday Times of Malta to clarify if Steward Health Care has taken over the running of the three State hospitals, whether the transfer contract between VGH and Steward has been signed and what type of legal action the government was considering against MAM.

Instead, a spokeswoman directed the newspaper to a tweet by Health Minister Chris Fearne, which read: “Meeting with MAM set for Monday. This week we found solutions with pharmacists, nurses and physios. Now working to find a solution with doctors.”

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