Troubled NHLS ship is ‘righted’

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Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says he has “righted the troubled ship” of the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) as provinces are now paying their bills on time, and it is moving closer to resolving its disputes with Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), reports Business Day.

The NHLS is the backbone of the health system as it provides the blood tests needed to diagnose and monitor diseases ranging from HIV to cervical cancer. Not only do its facilities provide all the tests ordered for public sector patients, the military and prisons, but it also does highly specialised tests not available in the private sector.

For years it has battled to get provincial health departments to pay their bills on time, despite offering discounts for timely payments. The problems have been particularly acute with KZN and Gauteng, which both disputed the amounts the NHLS said they owed and refused to pay up. In March the NHLS told Parliament KZN owed R3.289bn and Gauteng owed R1.092bn. The cash crunch has strained the NHLS’s capacity to fulfil its responsibilities for research and training, hampered its capacity to maintain its infrastructure and triggered an exodus of staff.

Motsoaledi said in the report that his department had worked closely with the Treasury, the NHLS and provincial health departments to resolve the billing problems. The national department had warned provinces that it would withhold conditional grants if they did not pay for current services. It did so with Gauteng and KZN last year.

Withholding funds should be treated as a last resort, Treasury spokesperson Phumza Macanda is quoted in the report as saying, and the Treasury had formally requested that provinces pay for current services while negotiations continued over historical debts. The provinces with relatively modest historical debts, such as the Free State and North West, had made provision in their current budgets to pay their debts to the NHLS. Talks with KZN and Gauteng were progressing well, Motsoaledi said.

Full Business Day report

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