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Former Polidano Group CEO made head of free medicines scheme, no public call

Isabella Vella has no experience in the sector and ‘catapulted to the top of a department with numerous qualified and experienced personnel, mainly pharmacists, who have been administering the complicated scheme for years’.

Chris Fearne COVID-19

Updated to include comments from the President of the Healthcare Section of the Chamber of SMEs, which manages the POYC scheme, and the Chamber of Pharmacists.

Deputy Prime Minister Chris Fearne has parted from good governance and transparency rules with sensitive public appointments, selecting the inexperienced Isabella Vella, the former CEO of construction magnates Polidano Group, to head Pharmacy of Your Choice  (POYC), overriding qualified candidates.

The Shift has learned that Vella, long-time partner of Charles Polidano, better known as ‘Ic-Caqnu’, took up the position as the scheme’s top administrator a number of weeks ago, following a direct appointment by Fearne.

Vella is not known to have either experience or qualifications for this post, which oversees the distribution of free medicinal products to tens of thousands of clients across the island through a network of dozens of pharmacies.

The scheme administers, among other things, a budget running into tens of millions of taxpayers’ funds each year.

Health industry sources have told The Shift that the direct appointment of Vella to the helm of the POYC is “scandalous”, as the new Chief Executive has “zero experience” in the sector.

“This is just a personal favour by Minister Fearne based solely on friendship and political patronage, and surely not on any sort of meritocracy or ability,” one source insisted.

“To add insult to injury, Vella has been catapulted to the top of a department with numerous qualified and experienced personnel, mainly pharmacists, who have been administering the complicated scheme for years,” he added.

The appointment of Vella was not disclosed by the Health Ministry. No public announcement was made.

It was her daughter, Ema Polidano, who revealed her mother’s appointment, congratulating her “queen” for her appointment at the Health Ministry.

Nationalist Party election candidate, Notary Sam Abela, was the first to congratulate Vella.

Asked by The Shift to explain why no public call was made for this appointment and Vella’s academic qualifications for the post, a spokesperson delivered a stock reply stating that the new POYC leadership is made up of CEO Vella and COO Stephen Cassar.

“Ms Vella held various managerial posts in the private sector, most notably as CEO of Polidano Group of Companies and was a consultant at Inaiala Holdings Ltd, Chairperson of the Maltese Chinese Chamber of Commerce and executive director of Main Street Shopping Complex”, owned by, among others, Electrogas shareholder Joe Gasan.

While providing The Shift with information about the academic qualification of the COO, which The Shift did not ask for, the spokesperson failed to list Vella’s qualifications.

Research conducted by The Shift shows that, until a few years ago, Vella had managed two clothing boutiques on behalf of the Polidano group under the trade names Mei Trading Ltd and Roci Trading Ltd. Both companies are currently in dissolution.

Vella had also sat on the board of directors of Peninsula Investments Ltd – the owners of the Westin Dragonara Hotel, in which Polidano is one of three major shareholders.

Vella stopped serving on this board after she fell out with Caqnu, The Shift is informed.

Caqnu’s Polidano Group includes dozens of companies, mainly in real estate and construction, and is notorious for violations of planning laws and illegal property developments.

The Group is also known to owe the government millions in unpaid taxes.

The President of the Healthcare Section of the Chamber of SMEs told The Shift that he welcomed the appointment of Vella as CEO and Cassar as COO of the POYC unit. “I am sure that we will work well together,” Mario Debono said.

When asked by The Shift whether the Chamber of Pharmacists endorsed the appointment, President Mary Anne Sant Fournier said that while the Chamber does not have the remit to endorse Vella”s appointment, it welcomed the appointment of a pharmacist with experience in the private pharmaceutical sector, Stefan Cassar, in a new role of COO.

The Chamber (Kamra) is a member of the POYC Standing Advisory committee together with government and the Chamber of SMEs Pharmacy Section, where it represents pharmacists in the implementation of the POYC national scheme from all aspects, Sant Fournier explained.

“The trend since the inception of POYC in 2007 has been that government appoints CEOs with managerial and business practice backgrounds. The Kamra welcomes the appointment since we have been without a CEO since January 2020, albeit the outgoing CEO remained in acting, day to day role. Importantly, the Kamra welcomes the appointment of a pharmacist with experience in the private pharmaceutical sector, Stefan Cassar, in a new role of COO.”

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