KZN oncology remains stalled over machine maintenance non payment

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The future maintenance of oncology machines at Addington Hospital hangs in the balance as Tecmed, the firm that was contracted for the job, says it is still owed almost 
R5m, reports The Mercury.

With Tecmed’s contract having expired two years ago, and the machines’ manufacturers Varian only doing an “audit” on the machines, there is no contract in place to get them up and running, and no answers for desperate patients awaiting treatment.

The letter quotes Tecmed executive chair Werner Begeré as saying that the firm was saddened by the plight of cancer patients who are not 
receiving life-saving treatment and they were willing and prepared to immediately re-quote for the repair and re-commissioning of the system once the government had settled the outstanding amounts due to them. “Tecmed Africa guarantees that once such a quotation has been accepted and payment done that the technical specialists would bring the units into operation in a short time period,” said Begeré.

The report says the Health and Other Services Personnel Trade Union of SA (Hospersa) was among the first to raise the alarm regarding the oncology crisis four years ago. Provincial secretary Popson Kunene questioned why the department stopped payment in the first place. “How does a department responsible for people’s lives simply stop fulfilling their end of a service contract without a contingency plan? Even as we speak, there is no concrete plan to deal with the situation going forward,” he said.

Poonitha Naidoo, co-ordinator for the Medical Rights Advocacy Network (Meran) agreed, saying any plans to rescue state oncology services which did not provide a long-lasting solution to the debacle at Addington would not change anything. “Addington is where the oncology crisis started. We would not be in the situation we are in if those machines were serviced, and they were not serviced because the department decided to stop payment.” Naidoo said it would be more expensive to repair the machines.

Tecmed also said: “Due to the nature of oncology equipment, such systems require regular servicing. The high levels of radiation destroys components in the machines (which) automatically stop functioning.”

The report said Varian International confirmed the department had requested a technical audit of the machines at Addington. “We will be discussing the request with the Health Department.” Tecmed was the only company in South Africa with technicians trained and qualified to work on the machines. However, earlier this year, Varian announced they were establishing a direct sales and service operation in Johannesburg. “Varian has historically sold and serviced its technology-leading radiotherapy systems to South African hospitals via Tecmed Africa, but now intends to sell and service its systems directly starting this month (April).”

The report said with no agreement in place, it is not clear whether Varian will take over the maintenance of the machines and whether it will be at the R400,000 which was supposed to be paid to Tecmed monthly.

Last month, the SA Human Rights Commission found the rights of cancer patients to access health care in the province had been violated. It ordered provincial and national departments to prioritise procurement of essential health technology machines for screening and treating of cancer. Spokesperson for the commission, Gail Smith, confirmed the department had met the 10-day deadline to respond to the report and MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo had met them. She said they were working through the responses after which they would make a determination on the next step.

Meanwhile, the report says, the matter was being handled in the province jointly by the department, Treasury and the office of Premier Willies Mchunu. The department did not respond to enquiries but the premier’s spokesperson, Ndabezinhle Sibiya, said the provincial government had set up a task team to look into procurement, budgeting, human resources and other issues at the department, aiming to advise on the best way forward in the interests of the provision of quality health care to the people of KZN.

The report says oncology services, including radiotherapy, are provided at three hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal: Inkosi Albert Luthuli and Addington in Durban and Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. It’s believed there are no specialist oncologists at Albert Luthuli, while the machines at Addington are out of order. There are two oncologists at Grey’s.

The Mercury report

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