Budget Debate 20132335 03 Apr, 2013
Dr. Norton: May it pleases you, Mr. Speaker, I rise to make my contribution in this honourable House to the Budget debate 2013 as presented by the Hon. Dr. Ashni Singh, Minister of Finance, entitled Overcoming Challenges Together, Accelerating Gains for Guyana. Whilst all have rights to his or her opinions and interpretations, and we of the Opposition will never deny the Minister Dr. Ashni Singh of this right, we must be able to distinguish between opinions and the realities that exist. I say this because of what the Hon. Minister attempted to lecture to us at the beginning of his budget presentation. He spoke about examples of parliamentary actions occasioned at the behest of the Opposition’s one-seat majority, the PPP biggest nightmare, that consumes valuable legislative time and effort in futile, unproductive and, oftentimes, counterproductive pursuits. This, colleagues, is opinion, the Hon. Dr. Ashni Singh, his statements caustic as they are could be further from the truth.
Now let us consider the facts and therefore the truth. The combined Opposition in the last fourteen months acted successfully to cut excesses in the budgetary allocations due to lack of accountability and transparency. We successfully passed a motion of no confidence against a poorly functioning Minister and that motion remains. Yes, we successfully passed motion and Bills those did not collide with the Constitution.
The taking of the Opposition to the court of law by the Government was without merit and can best be considered as a further waste of taxpayers’ money in the interest of supporting the PPP/C’s minority Government partisan interest. Let it be known that should this Opposition with its one seat majority, and that all we need, ever find it necessary, and I know we will, to do this again we will go right ahead and do our duty to the people of Guyana who have elected us to this Assembly. This is so, particularly because of how the courts of public opinion have judged what we have done in the past fourteen months.
Let it be known also that this Opposition is very much prepared to act, as we have done in the past year, and is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to do more on behalf of representing the interest of our constituents and even the constituents of the PPP/C which are increasingly finding themselves disillusioned by the Government they elected. I invite the PPP/C to call the bluff; we are ready, willing and waiting.
It was this same Minister, in his budget presentation last year, who announced to the National Assembly, in a completely differently tone, that there must be no doubt that as much as this current parliamentary dispensation provides important opportunities, so is it fraught with formidable challenges and continued that our quest for lasting solutions will have to be dominated not by partisan agenda but by rational and meritocratic consideration driven less by our impulsive instinct and more by our careful and deliberate judgement. This was the Minister; he said that:
“We must be able to resist the political lure of making choices like might have short term appeal and that compromise long term imperatives and most of all the current dispensation will require us to eschew political opportunism and grandstanding and work together to make good and sound decisions that can withstand the test of time.”
That is what he said last year. Almost, it is impossible to believe that those words were coming from the same person, just eleven days ago, who spoke in a most corrosive manner. We urge the Hon. Minister, in the interest of all Guyanese and the good of our nation, to revisit and commit to those statements that he made fourteen months ago.
With the aim of achieving universal health coverage, through the primary health care approach, the Budget 2013 has allocated $19.2 billion to the health sector but this can best be considered as only a start for it has now become the norm, and we only have to sit back and wait, for the PPP/C Government to come back to this honourable House for the approval of supplementary appropriations that it has already spent. In the Ninth Parliament alone the Hon. Minister came back with fourteen Supplementary Appropriation Bills. This year’s budget allocation to the health sector is $2.2 billion more than last year, which was $17 billion and was mainly for the infrastructural development, development of public health personnel and the provision of quality health service. Of last year’s $17 billion budget for the health sector, $1 billion was spent on infrastructural development, including funds for mobilising payments for the controversial, due to the shady manner in which information had to be obtained and the many unanswered questions, specialty surgical hospital. That caused the Hon. Minister of Health, the Hon. Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, to go to great lengths, in his budget presentation last year, to differentiate between site preparation and land preparation. He had even referred to a certain mayor of being racist because of questions asked. Mr. Speaker, you would agree that we should be careful at all time and not to label others as being racists when our own past actions can best be construed as such.
Not one on this side of the House was impressed by the Minister, Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, in his harping about the award of the contract for the site preparation, which was given to the Bovell Construction Services from Albouystown.
Ms. Teixeira: Mr. Speaker, if you would allow me, it is on a Point of Order. I believe that I heard an accusation or words to the effect of accusing Dr. Bheri Ramsaran, in relation to racism, and therefore I believe that you have cautioned all of us about the language we have used in here. It was not a heckle; it was said on the floor a minute ago.
Mr. Speaker: what I heard, and I am subject to be corrected, is that the Member was saying that Minister may have used language last year of accusing the Opposition of being racist. that is what I heard, but like I said… [Interruption]
Dr. Norton, could you repeat what you have said? That is what I heard.
The Government is assuming that the Guyanese population has unlimited access to internet, so we were told that all the information about this specialty hospital project is available online. No effort was made by the authorities to place the information in the daily newspaper to which the Guyanese do have access and where they are more inclined to seek such information. There is still a controversy in the award, through the tender process, where the bank guarantee submitted by the company, Surendra Engineering, which won the tender bid, was on an Indian’s bank letterhead that was never confirmed by any of our local banks. That should outright have disqualified that company and should have made it a non response bidder in the first place. We should also note that the established tender process of the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board was not followed.
Mr. Speaker: One second Dr. Norton. What I heard is that Dr. Norton made a reference to a proposal sent in on a letterhead of an Indian bank. What did you say?
Dr. Norton: I am saying that the bank guarantee submitted by the company was done by an Indian bank’s letterhead that was never confirmed by any of our local banks.
Mr. Speaker: If that is the reference, then I do not consider that reference to be racist.
Dr. Norton: They should out rightly have disqualified that company and should have made them a non-responsive bidder in the first place. We should also note that the established tender process of the National Procurement and Tender Administration Board was not followed, so that a company with no financial links to local banks was awarded the contracts, despite a competing company, having such links with an established and reputable financial institution, operating here in Guyana.
Of further interest should be the fact that the company selected and awarded the project of which the Indian Government is lending US$18 million has no experience with construction of this type and scale as compared to other tenders whose principle projects are construction of health institutions of the scale of our speciality hospital. They have done so the world over.
Mr. Speaker: I have heard nothing thus far. Is it later on?
Ms. Teixeira: Mr. Speaker, my understanding was that he was going to read back what he had read already. [Interruption] I am speaking to you, Sir.
Mr. Speaker: I am hearing a point of order from Ms. Teixeira.
Ms. Teixeira: Thank you. My understanding on it was that the Hon. Member would read back what he had read before because we are making a statement that he made an accusation with racism. We thought from his action that he was going to do that. What he has done is not that. He has proceeded to read his speech in continuum and not go back to that phase.
Mr. Speaker, could I suggest to you, if you wish, because these are serious issues when we talk about racism in this place and accuse people of racist behaviour, that we take a break and you probably look at his speech?
Mr. Speaker: Hon. Members, I do, in fact, take a dim view of any reference that may come over as racist. That is why I even cautioned a member about saying “the Chinese company”, but it is a bona fide company with the name Bosai. I, thus far, have not heard anything that seems to contravene that moral standard. I know that Dr. Norton did go back. I do not know that he went back as far as he ought to, but I still do not have a specific point of reference to say that he said something exactly. I will review it, but I do not see the need for us to stop. I will review it during the break and if it is so I will ask that it be withdrawn and expunged, if I am satisfied.
Let us go ahead.
Dr. Norton: The award of this contract to that company should remind us all of the Fip Motilall and the award of the road construction project to Amaila Falls. I am sure we all know what happened. Note too that our past experience with the awarded company is not of a pleasant nature. That company was blacklisted by GuySuCo which had to withhold moneys from this company at one time for the construction of the Enmore Packaging Plant.
This company also had some difficulties in the supply of some pumps for the Drainage and Irrigation Board. I mentioned all of this because out of the $2.3 billion that is earmarked for infrastructural development in the health sector, $1.25 billion has been budgeted for the specialty surgical hospital in 2013.
The Hon. Mr. Hamilton, in his budget presentation last year, claimed that Dr. Norton came to the National Assembly, and to quote him, “...cries and cries and cries, bringing all his tears here.” The Hon. Mr. Hamilton fails to recognise that I am making heartfelt and empathetic representation for the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalised and the neglected of this beloved nation of ours who do not have access to suitable and quality health care and who, quite unlike some like the Hon. Mr. Hamilton, do not have the means for seeking such at private hospitals here in Guyana or overseas, as in some cases, thanks to the Government of Mr. Hamilton, the Hon. Member.
Let me remind the Hon. Member that because I have been in the medical profession for more than two and half decades, I speak from facts and experience. I am no Johnny-come-lately in the health sector. I have seen what he has not seen and I have heard from the people most in need of medical care what he has not heard in all of Guyana. I have experienced the plight of patients dying for reasons that are avoidable. Certainly, I have been a Member of Parliament for fifteen years. This is so because I am here to represent the Guyanese people who need the kind of health services immediately and affordably, which the Government of the Hon. Mr. Hamilton is not providing. Besides, I am a member of, and with strong allegations to, the PNCR, the Opposition allegiance and the people it represents. It is an allegiance which you, Hon. Mr. Hamilton, once shared not so long ago. I beg to inform the Hon. Member that I stand firm in support of that party and I am no crossover or no turncoat and will never be. I am here as a member of the Opposition, not to praise you or your Government, but to point out, to advise, to remind you and to criticise you when you are not doing what you are supposed to be doing on behalf of all Guyanese and to also tell you of your shortcomings and what I see as your failures, poor implementation and less than effective policies. I do so with no apologies.
The Hon. Member spent most of his last year’s budget presentation referring to my presentation. It seems that there was a problem with the Hon. Member – and here again I go – that the only person to be called a doctor from the Amerindian community in the Cooperative Republic of Guyana was one Dr. George Norton.
Mr. Speaker: Feel privileged Mr. Hamilton. Let the Member speak.
Dr. Norton: Even if he did have a problem with me being the only person being called a doctor from the Amerindian community – and he had a problem - that was incorrect. We find it unacceptable and distasteful for the Member to come here to this House and to express such an idea, even if he had it in mind. [Minister of Housing and Water [Mr. Ali]: He has not spoken as yet.] I am speaking about last year.
The Hon. Member claims that that has changed. I would like to inform the Hon. Member that that has changed with my contribution with zeal and enthusiasm, for I have been with the University of Guyana’s Medical School from its inception and helped in the formation of several Amerindian doctors.
Let us again deal with the facts. I was qualified in 1988, but was not the first Amerindian to be qualified as a doctor. Thanks to the PNC Government, I qualified as a specialist, along with so many others, in the areas of surgeons, laboratorists, orthopaedics, psychiatrists, pathologists, maxillofacialists, to name some, most of who are still in Guyana and some still with Government agencies.
In 1992, the PPP/C gained office and it took more than 15 years, according to the Hon. Member, for them to support the training of another Amerindian to qualify as a doctor. That is appalling.
It is a fact that I am the point man of health in the main Opposition party. The fact that I spent some good time speaking about the Georgetown Public Hospital...which was not accurate, the situation at the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation necessitates such focus and scrutiny for correction because of the large sum of money that is allocated to that institution and because it is the main centre for referrals and advanced case management, at times being the only such centre. It is necessary that due attention be paid and comments be made that are relevant to enhancing the delivery of quality service which, in many instances and situations, are significantly insufficient.
Apparently, we have some problems when we hear that at the Georgetown Public Hospital, the rats are eating the corpses at the mortuary and not the dogs as was the case in Region 1 not so long ago. We do not want to hear the public outcry that no hospital washroom should be as stink as that of the Georgetown Public Hospital. It is uncomfortable for some to hear that the US$8 million that was spent for the in-patient facility at the Georgetown Hospital which is a little over one year old seems to be crumbling already, with the ceiling falling in various places, being swollen with moisture, the continuous overflowing of the sinks, toilets and washrooms, the floors remain pealed, cracked and dirt-stained; ventilation remains a problem as none of the electrical points are functioning; patients cannot use electrical fans, especially in the wards with one door and without windows. One of the elevators is broken as well as the intercommunication system not functioning. Bed-sharing still remains an issue and, at times, persons even have to share the bed with the dead. If all this is taking place right here in Georgetown, one can only imagine what is happening in the other 364 health facilities in this country.
If at the Regional Hospital in Region 7, Bartica, the yearly allocation of drugs has not yet been delivered, excuses being such as staff shortage, just think about the situation at the level of the district hospital at Kamarang that is without a doctor for over one year, at Mahdia in Region 8 or at the health centres and health huts in these Regions.
When a similar situation was reported by the newspaper about no drugs at the Buxton Health Centre, blame was readily placed on some delinquent pharmacist. There are no reagents to do lab work at the Bartica Hospital, not even a Haemoglobin (Hb) test. Patients are forced to seek the same at private labs. There is a Malaria technologist functioning as a pharmacist. With the contribution of our Regional MP, we can be assured that all the shortcomings of the health sector will be pointed out in all of Guyana’s 83,000 square miles.
There are situations in the Lethem hospital, the Mahdia Hospital and the Linden Hospital that were referred to in the last budget presentation and all we heard was that these were noted. In the Linden Hospital, for instance – and we heard the Hon. Minister speaking so much about sending persons to get trained and about the Linden Hospital being one of the best in the country... There has been so much talk about sending persons overseas to do further specialist training. Yet, there is a doctor who specialised in ophthalmology and is now back in Linden for over one year and the conditions for maximum utilisation of her skills are yet not in place, especially with respect to consumables and auxiliary personnel for surgical procedures.
We had three years to put arrangements in place but we have failed to do so. It seems that there is no interest on the part of the authorities to get this done. It is only yesterday I heard a Member from the Government benches referring to my brothers and sisters from Linden. Are they being treated differently? Should they not have access to the service of ophthalmology in their own town like the peoples of Georgetown, New Amsterdam or Port Mourant? We want to hear what the Government’s plan of action is to correct these situations of no water or electricity at the Kamarang Hospital, and the shortage of drugs and adequate storage facility at the Mahdia Hospital. We want to know when these situations will be corrected, because we expect the Ministry to be fully aware of the situation. This is the strategy of the health sector which was claimed that I have no understanding of.
It makes no sense boasting about the 129 health centres or the 209 health huts that exist if they are not functioning properly and if they are understaffed and without equipment and drugs.
We learnt that in 2011 over $15 million was expended on medivacs, bringing patients who have medical problems out of the Interior and, in 2012, more than $19 million was expended. We listened to the Hon. Minister, Dr. Bheri Ramsarran, and how he boasted about how effective the medivac programme is. This year, the public is watching and waiting to see what is the tidying up, according to the Minister, which we heard from him, that will be done to avoid the repetition of the very sad situation of 15-year-old Zaleena Shadick who had her throat slit and was practically disembowelled and could not be evacuated in time to save her life from Mabaruma, Region 1.
We all had to swallow the typical statement made by the Hon. Minister, “We do not shake pilots from the sky or off trees,” as the excuse for not being able to do so to save the life of that poor girl. We, the Guyanese people, want to see a protocol established, mandatorily requiring domestic airlines to put all systems in place to medivac emergency patients. It was claimed that I came to this House and cried; I brought my tears here. Apparently, some of us will not be moved to tears when we hear or when we read the death note that Zaleena, from her death bed, wrote to her father begging for forgiveness.
This problem is not confined only to the availability of aeroplanes and aeroplane pilots. In Region 9, it is the availability of suitable vehicles to provide transport for the critically ill from the far-flung villages to the Lethem Regional Hospital as was ably pointed out by the Hon. Sidney Allicock.
In early January of this year, 20-year-old Euphemia Francis, a nursery school teacher from the village of Nappi, died due to a lack of transportation to take her to the Lethem Hospital on time. This was so after the villagers were informed that the driver for the vehicle in Lethem was not available.
This is not for the first time that this has happened; for not so long ago, the driver of the ambulance could not be found to transport a 14-month-old baby girl from Shea, South Rupununi to the Boa Vista hospital in time and she eventually perished.
The Hon. Sidney Allicock spoke of the 33-year-old Rosalind Stevens of Parishara Village who died just after child birth because there was no vehicle to take her to the Lethem hospital. It was while this patient was in labour and bleeding profusely that she had to be taken on a motorbike. She died that night, leaving six children for her elderly mother to care for.
The All-Terrain Vehicle (ATV) and the truck that was promised to the Mahdia Hospital from last year’s Budget have not been provided to that Hospital as yet. How many have to die for something positive to happen?
The medivac situation that the Minister boasted so much about needs much more than just a “tidy up”, to quote the Minster. We all remember - and I wonder if the Hon. Dr. Ramsammy would remember - the Hon. Minister boasting to the press that his assuming the helm of the Ministry will ensure that it will not be business as usual, and, in instances when it is not feasible to take certain services to the community, services needed would be effectively accomplished through the medivac programme. This situation certainly is worse than business as usual.
In Region 1, for instance, especially in and around the village of Port Kaituma, the outbreak of gastroenteritis was a crisis waiting to happen. It was only after the death of three children and the number of cases reaching a total of 529 just two weeks ago that the authorities seem to act proactively with all the different agencies that were involved. This was all due to the contamination of water for domestic purposes, including that which is used for bathing purposes and for brushing one’s teeth.
This was claimed to be as a result of the quality of water in the area affected by mining operations – and Mr. Speaker I crave your attention as I mention mining – and the lack of response by the officials at the Guyana Geology and Mines Commission (GGMC). According to the Guyana Water Incorporation, the water pump ceased to operate due to the murky water from the mining operations in the area.
In the neighbouring village to Port Kaituma, Sebai, the river water was being pumped in the pipelines without being treated. So, even the water that was flowing from the pipes, when tested just three weeks ago, was found to be extensively contaminated with both faecal coliform and Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria, meaning, the water is contaminated with human faeces.
As I said before, these situations were just waiting to happen. Unfortunately, not only in Region 1, but in Region 7, there is another situation where the residents of Bartica have reported the dumping of faecal matter along the Potaro Road, calling on the Ministry of Health for its intervention.
In Region 2, in early February, it was made public, the dumping of harmful hospital waste in Red Village, a village of about 1,000 persons located on the Essequibo Coast, which includes human bones and biological waste.
It is not strange that we seem to be having a national environmental crisis, since it was pointed out by the Minister within the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development himself, the Hon. Norman Whittaker, who said that the Environmental Health Officer has been found to be incompetent in several areas of health services.
In speaking about the improvement of the West Demerara Regional Hospital, the Hon. Minister Bheri Ramsarran heaped praises on Dr. Brijmohan, adding that the good doctor reports to him sometimes three, four or five times a day on not only what is happening at the West Demerara Hospital, but in the Leonora Hospital. Tell me colleagues, should it be necessary for a qualified professional such as Dr. Brijmohan to call the boss three, four or five times a day to make reports?
Why in the wake of the death of pregnant Tushana Cameron, 21 year old, of Bagotville, who bled to death with complications after the doctors decided to induce labour, and the death of 15-year-old Shemar Miggins under questionable circumstances at the West Demerara Hospital are processes of rectification now being engaged and improvement of services now being seen? Why in the aftermath? The Hon. Minister himself has confessed to the fact that the Berbicians are greatly dissatisfied with the health services being provided in both Regions 5 and 6.
The reason all this is now reaching the press even though it existed a long time ago is because of the effort of the Hon. Minister to convince the Guyanese public, particularly the relatives, that a power failure was not responsible for the death of Tirtawattie Shoandeo while undergoing surgery at the New Amsterdam Hospital. The Hon. Member explained: “It was hours after the surgery that she died, not a few minutes after, so that was not the cause of her death. The doctors know there are ways of keeping a person alive and they did that.”
Mr. Speaker, I remember, in his presentation last year, you asked the Hon. Dr. Mahadeo a special favour in admitting patients who you described as a resident of the National Assembly to the Psychiatric Hospital in Region 6. The situation now has become worse. That number has increased. We must remember the little school boy who was brutally attacked by one such person and another who killed a citizen in another part of the city. One gets the impression that the situation of the service of psychiatry in this country is certainly not one that we can be proud of. We call upon the Hon. Minister to make his plans of extending rental health services and treatment beyond the doors of the Psychiatric Hospital a reality. This is very much so because of the frightening issue of suicide. This should be a national approach.
Only in today’s newspaper, we read about the case of Janelle Ramnarine, 24 years old of Richmond Housing Scheme, Essequibo. There has been a notable increase in suicide rates, especially in that area. Just to mention a few: Nandranie Narine of Charity, Param Gansundar of Anna Regina, Roy Jones of Queenstown, not forgetting 16-year-old Safraz Sattaur and 15-year-old Natasha Nazamadeen. Of course, we can never forget the case of 18-year-old Ronnie Ramit from Mabaruma who hanged himself after slitting the throat of 15-year-old Bibi Zaleena Shadick.
Mr. Speaker, I can continue, for the rest of the night, to point out the inefficiencies of our heath system and ways in which it can be corrected. But I just want to remind you of the salient points of my presentation.
It is necessary for us to scrutinise the functioning of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation (GPHC), because of its importance, and the network of health facilities across the length and breadth of this country. We need to follow, closely, the situation of the specialty surgical hospital. More emphasis must be placed on the environment and there needs to be greater inter-agency collaboration to ensure health safety for our citizens of all of the country.
Lastly, we ask that the Government adapt a more robust approach to the psychiatric service available to all citizens of this country.
I end by making reference to one of the famous Martin Carter’s poem which states: “All are involved, all are consumed.”
Thank you very much. [Applause]
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