Prime Minister Robert Abela said the government had not yet ruled out revoking the controversial hospitals contract.
Labour MPs shot down an Opposition motion in Parliament on Thursday demanding that the running of the St Luke's, Karin Grech and Gozo hospitals be handed back to the government.
Abela said discussions were ongoing with Steward about “the way forward”.
“I can put your mind at rest. This is a government that is not scared of taking difficult decisions.”
He said one of the options still on the table was revoking the contract.
The other two options were continuing with the original contract or amending it.
Were it not for the COVID-19 crisis, the final decision would already have been taken, the prime minister said.
Abela said the Opposition never missed an opportunity to launch an attack, even at a time when the country had united in its battle against COVID-19.
The worst thing that could be done now would be to disrupt the health authorities’ operations, Abela continued.
“What would become of the elderly? What would become of the patients receiving care at the Gozo and Karin Grech hospitals”, Abela questioned.
The prime minister accused the Opposition of hampering its negotiations with Steward, by throwing its weight behind a motion that would force the government to pay out €100 million.
'Join us in this fight' - Delia
Opposition leader Adrian Delia urged the government to join the Opposition in taking the fight to Steward.
Delia said the Opposition would support the government, so as a Parliament, they could fight VGH and Steward, as well as all those who were complicit in the deal, to get the three hospitals back.
He charted how VGH had already started signing agreements with the government before the tender had even been published.
He said Nexia BT, of Panama Papers fame, had been chosen to evaluate the VGH tender.
The evaluation report of the VGH made it clear that the company had had no prior healthcare experience.
Delia said the government had handed over the hospitals to a “fraudster” called Ram Tumuluri, one of the project’s front men.
This “fraudster” then chose Steward to take over the deal, Delia continued.
Delia said Abela was the lawyer advising Joseph Muscat when the government signed a side contract with Steward, agreeing to pay them €100 million if the contract was revoked by court order.
'COVID-19 crisis show strength of healthcare'
Earlier, Health Minister Chris Fearne said the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic showed the strength of Malta's healthcare system, rubbishing an Opposition request to revoke the contract with Steward Healthcare.
Fearne pledged that the government would ensure Steward lived up to its contractual obligations, “no more and no less”.
He said the Opposition’s motion had to be analysed in the context of the successful handling of this pandemic.
“Malta has come out of this with honours. The motion has to be understood in this context”.
Fearne said Steward Healthcare was one of the biggest healthcare providers in America, caring for 12 million patients a year.
The Health Minister said he travelled to America to view Steward’s facilities after they struck a deal to buy the concession from Vitals Global Healthcare.
Steward were instructed to make good for the time “wasted” under Vitals. He said Steward had built a state-of-the-art medical school in Gozo and had presented plans to renovate St Luke’s and the Gozo hospital.
The Health Minister said Steward had played their part during the COVID-19 pandemic too.
Fearne immediately turned the tables on the Opposition, flagging a critical report released by the Auditor General on Wednesday about overspending at Mater Dei under a PN administration.
He said the costs to run the three hospitals would have to be paid out, regardless of whether Steward were running them or not.
Fearne said the government expected Steward to deliver their contractual obligations.
He said the real adversary in all this should be COVID-19, with the heroes being the healthcare frontliners, not grandstanding politicians.
“This is the moment where the country’s future should be put before the future of any political party”.
'A money-laundering machine'
Shadow Justice Minister Jason Azzopardi said the Opposition motion was intended to protect healthcare workers from government corruption.
He said Labour MPs were protecting the corrupt deals by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri and former Health and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi.
Assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia had flagged a due diligence report calling out the “sham” company involved in the original concession, Azzopardi said.
He said Vitals was a money-laundering machine that had left nothing but debt.
Steward, in turn, owes €16 million in VAT arrears, he said.
Fellow PN MP Karol Aquilina implored all those Labour MPs who had distanced themselves from Muscat, Schembri and Mizzi to do the right thing.
He said the motion was their first chance to vote in favour of Maltese patients.
Aquilina said the Opposition was there to do what the government had failed to do.
What about Mater Dei?
Finance Minister Edward Scicluna also turns his guns on the Opposition over the PN’s handling of the Mater Dei project.
Scicluna said Mater Dei hospital had cost five times more than the original estimate.
He said the “paladins of transparency” had overturned the winning bid for the tender and given it to another company.
Scicluna said the PN administration had totally lost control of the project, and after doing so, had even waived the contractor’s responsibility for any defects.
On the hospitals deal, Scicluna said the government was simply covering the costs of the healthcare workers at the three hospitals.
“Every euro being spent is in the government’s financial estimates”, Scicluna said.
He said the government would keep evaluating the deal and taking on board feedback from Steward.
PN MP Claudio Grech noted this was the first time Scicluna had defended the contract, after being told to do so.
Grech said VGH had failed its obligations to invest close to €200 million. He noted that the company only ever had €1,200 in share capital.
Instead of rescinding the contract, the government had waived a €9 million bank guarantee and even agreed to pay the concessionaire €100 million if the contract was terminated by a court order.
The original concessionaires VGH crashed out of the concession two years after taking over.
The investors failed to raise the required financing, leaving unions and the Opposition seething about the lack of progress at the three hospitals and the opaque nature of the deal.
VGH were supposed to invest €200 million as part of the concession.
Steward Health Care, an American healthcare provider, took over the concession in December 2017 for an undisclosed fee.
Steward are reportedly trying to negotiate more favourable terms for the concession.
In a statement later, Delia described the government’s vote as a betrayal of the Maltese people.
He said the Nationalist Party would continue fighting in court to get the hospital back for the people and would support the government if it decided it wanted to take the hospitals back.
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