Wednesday 28 February 2024

So, in whose interest was the Vitals/Steward deal exactly?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

On Friday, Judge Francesco Depasquele delivered his verdict on the case brought by former Opposition leader Adrian Delia regarding the 2015 privatisation deal for Vitals Global Healthcare to run Gozo General Hospital, St Luke’s Hospital and Karin Grech. When Vitals failed to deliver, it sold the concession to Steward Healthcare in 2018.

The Judge ruled that both deals were fraudulent and that the management of the three hospitals should be returned to the Government within three months. When reading the judgement, what stands out are certain phrases such as Vitals “took advantage of the Government” and a Memorandum of Understanding with the Government prior to the granting of the concession was kept hidden, showing that there was “a conflict of interest” and “fraudulent intent”. Then we were told that Steward “forced the government to change the agreement to make the government in default if the contract failed”. The conclusion by the judge was clear and simple, that Steward wanted “to end up enriching itself on the back of the Maltese taxpayer.”

Meanwhile, none of the concession milestones which were meant to be completed according to the agreement were ever reached.

In fact, the Judge questioned how the government had allowed itself to get into this position – which is what many people are asking themselves as well. We are either saying that the entire Muscat administration, along with its lawyers, was hopelessly inept and naive….or (more likely) someone, somewhere (apart from Vitals and Steward) stood to make financial gain out of one, if not, both of these deals.

Shortly after the verdict, former PM Joseph Muscat was quick to claim that all the agreements were carried out following legal scrutiny and after approval by the Cabinet. How very typical of him. He is always so quick to shirk responsibility and blame it on others rather than saying “mea culpa”. It is characteristic of his term in office; he had this knack of knowing just how to compromise others in the decisions he was spearheading so that he could afterwards turn around to his Ministers and say, “but you all agreed to this too.”

Instead of stopping there, Muscat added that he has always acted “in the interest of the people”. Well that deal was certainly in someone’s interest, but I would hardly say that it has been the public which has benefitted. Now that the contract has been nullified, according to the agreement, the government has to fork out €100 million. In case the penny hasn’t dropped yet, that money comes out of your taxes – taxes which should go for our schools, healthcare and other sectors rather than being pocketed by a company which hammered out such a sweet deal with (then Health Minister) Konrad Mizzi. That is the price we pay for corruption.

So what will happen now? Is no one going to be held criminally accountable for this scandal of such wide-ranging and expensive proportions? Muscat and Mizzi seem to have ridden off into the sunset, with not a care in the world, leaving a trail of dust behind them. PM Robert Abela (then Muscat’s legal advisor) and current Health Minister Chris Fearne are busy trying to distance themselves from the fallout. There has been so much washing of hands off the whole deal that it feels like we are back in the pandemic. Do politicians get to make these outrageous decisions on behalf of the nation and then simply shrug and say “oops, oh well, what can you do?”

The Opposition is rightly baying for blood, now that this Court judgement has vindicated all its objections against these deals. The hero of the hour is undoubtedly Adrian Delia who, despite being shunned and removed from the leadership of his own party, persisted with the law suit and saw the whole thing through.

Later on Friday, Steward Health Care Malta (SHCM) issued a press release in which it strongly objected to the court judgement:

“SHCM will pursue action contesting all allegations of wrongdoing raised in the court judgement, allegations we consider outrageous and without merit. From a preliminary review of the judgement, we believe there to be significant flaws in reasoning and award. We believe that the judgement, which goes far beyond the court’s remit, presents major concerns for the rule of law in Malta and has serious implications for the future of foreign investment in the country. While the legal, operational, and practical aspects of the consequences of the court’s judgement need to be assessed in detail and understood thoroughly, SHCM remains committed to operate at all times in accordance with its highest professional standards and values.”
Even though PM Abela will be asking the Courts for the appeal to be held with urgency, from the looks of it, this matter will continue to be tied up in lawsuits for the foreseeable future. The crucial question is, what will happen to the patients relying on these hospitals while the management is in a state of flux? Who will ensure that they will continue to receive the best care if and when the running of the hospitals eventually changes hands? What is worse is that, in the meantime, very little of the promised upgrading to the hospitals has been carried out because of an ongoing dispute between Steward and the government over the terms of the original concession, which the company wants to be re-negotiated.

So, ultimately, seven years after the ill-fated Vitals agreement, these three hospitals have not been renovated, there are mounting debts which the government will have to absorb, plus the hefty penalty according to the default clause. And, once this saga is finally resolved, what will the people of Malta and Gozo have actually got out of these very dubious deals? Not much. At the end of the day what concerns patients who make use of these hospitals is that they step into healthcare facilities which are of the high quality standards which they deserve, especially after hearing about all the millions involved in these two deals. What also concerns the public is that those elected to office who are negotiating on our behalf are not doing so to set themselves up for life thanks to some shady arrangement, only to raise their hands up in faux innocence when they are caught and protest loudly that, “it wasn’t me.”

After the judgement, the government came out with a statement saying it will “safeguard the national interest, the employment of all workers and all hospital services.” Hmmm, the national interest…we keep hearing this phrase being bandied about, but more and more it is sounding like hollow, meaningless rhetoric.

Powered by