Steward Healthcare sending Coronavirus patients in Gozo to Malta

There is no clear contribution being made by Steward Healthcare, which operates three of Malta’s public hospitals, to help tackle the current pressures coronavirus is placing on Malta’s main hospital Mater Dei which is managed by the government.

Steward Healthcare, the private company operating three of Malta’s national hospitals, told The Shift that they were keeping up with preparations for their own hospitals. A spokesperson avoided giving concrete answers to questions on the company’s support for the burden being placed on Mater Dei, especially in light of the recent revelations that final year medical students were being called in to give a helping hand.

Steward’s Corporate Affairs and Communications Vice President Alessandra Pace said that if any patients testing positive for COVID-19 in Gozo required hospital admission at this stage, they were being sent by Steward Healthcare to Mater Dei in Malta.

The first COVID-19 case in Gozo was found in a 68-year old man on Friday.

The company is being paid €70 million per year, or €188,000 per day from the Maltese government for potentially 99 years – a contract guaranteeing €7 billion in revenue. These payments do not stop despite the government carrying the additional burden of a pandemic.

The Shift revealed that Steward Healthcare paid the total sum of €1 to take over the concession from Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) for three of the country’s public hospitals, while the original once-secret owners left with millions.

The current phase of the contingency plan is Phase 1 in which potential patients will be transferred to Mater Dei. The company’s website boasts that it is “equipped with an emergency service and is connected with hospitals on mainland Malta with an air ambulance service which is based in Gozo”.

But Steward Healthcare said patients were being sent to Malta by an ambulance and staff in collaboration with the Gozo Channel through chartered ferry trips.

When asked whether it was the company or the government that would be carrying the cost of patient transfers and care, Pace said she deemed it “insulting” to be asked about such costs in a time of crisis.

The Shift insisted details of Steward Healthcare’s contribution, considering what taxpayers were forking out for the operation of three public hospitals on a daily basis, was in the public interest precisely because it was a time of crisis.

Steward Healthcare said that it was only when the medical plan enters ‘Phase 2’ that COVID-19 positive patients needing admission will be cared for at the Gozo General Hospital. Steward did not clarify at which point Phase 1 became Phase 2.

The Shift understands that is when the number of COVID-19 positive patients increases significantly, but the threshold remains unclear. The Health Ministry did not answer questions sent.

Asked whether the privatised hospitals were contributing to better the Coronavirus situation in the country in any way, Pace said the hospital was cooperating with authorities to ensure their hospitals were “as well-equipped as possible” to meet requirements and guidelines.

Meanwhile, they were “continuing to deliver care to (their) patient community and working around the clock for any eventuality,” according to Pace. 

The Shift asked whether Steward Healthcare could, in fact, be adding to the challenges the country was facing in dealing with the pandemic by increasing the shortfall of staff available to the government to deal with the pandemic.

“Our hospitals need professional hands on deck too as they are also expected to care for COVID-19 patients,” she replied.

On Wednesday, The Times of Malta reported that medical students in their final year were being called in to work at Mater Dei. When The Shift asked whether Steward Healthcare staff was assisting at Mater Dei in light of this reality, direct questions were left unanswered. 

“Our approach has been to act as a close partner to the government and we will continue to assist in any way possible. Throughout the past weeks, we have taken all the necessary precautions to ensure our facility, and our people are ready and we continue to work in close harmony with the government and community to overcome this period of difficulty,” Pace said.

She failed to define what it meant to “assist in any way possible” but it seems that so far it continues to be the taxpayer who carries the burden of healthcare in the country, despite forking out close to €200,000 per day for the operation of three public hospitals.

Steward Healthcare, accompanied by disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat who greenlighted the deal described by the Council of Europe as an “inadvisable, underhand deal“, has recently sought more money and guarantees from the government on the concession.


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