Prime Minister Robert Abela’s government is in the final stages of awarding another multi-million euro direct order to Healthmark Care Services – a company owned by Silvio Debono of the DB Group and James Barbara of James Caterers.
At the same time, the government has ignored recommendations made by the NAO to annul the controversial St Vincent de Paul €275 million direct order awarded to the same businessmen by Abela’s predecessor, disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat.
The new direct order, with a value of almost €8 million for 12 months, involves the provision of the domiciliary nursing and caring services provided by the Ministry for Active Ageing, headed by Naxxar GP Michael Farrugia.
Through an unpublished negotiated procedure (a direct order tender), only the company owned by Debono/Barbara was invited to submit a bid. They asked for €7.69 million – a sum the government is set to approve.
The nursing service, previously provided by the MMDNA, which was dismantled after being taken over by Healthmark Care Services, has been run by the Debono/Barbara company since 2015.
In 2018, an investigation by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that the contract with Healthmark did not give the country value for its money and slammed the government for renewing the company’s contract annually through a direct order.
However, the government has failed to act on the NAO’s findings, and is instead set to award a new direct order for the same services, with the same company.
It is estimated that Debono and Barbara’s company has already cashed-in more than €40 million in taxpayer’s funds for this service via the repeat direct orders granted by the Labour government.
Another dubious contract
NGO MMDNA had been providing the nursing service for decades, until in 2015, under the direction of then parliamentary secretary Justyne Caruana, the MMDNA was told that the government no longer required all its services.
After months of fruitless negotiations with the government, the MMDNA gave up. Soon after, the government began talks with Healthmark, eventually signing a multi-million agreement, which also increased prices for the service.
Since then, Healthmark’s contract has been renewed annually by direct order, with costs going up every year.
In its 2018 investigation, the NAO said:
“These circumstances deviate from the provisions of good governance practices as it exposes government to avoidable litigation and possible legal repercussions.”
“Furthermore, the absence of a tendering process contributes towards establishing a dominant position within the industry.”
The NAO also said that “contractual provisions in the contract do not appropriately safeguard stakeholders’ interests” and the contract is skewed to benefit the service provider instead of the government.
Ignoring the NAO’s verdicts
Prime Minister Robert Abela has not only ignoring the NAO’s recommendations on this latest contract, but he’s also shelved the more recent report on the scandalous ten-year St Vincent De Paul direct given to the same owners of Healthmark.
Through an initiative that also began when Justyne Caruana was responsible for St Vincent de Paul, a tender for the renovation of the old people’s facility kitchen was morphed illegally into the building and administration of a 500-bed extension when DB Group and James Caterers were granted an unprecedented €275 million direct order for the project.
Following a three-year investigation, prompted by the then PN opposition, under the leadership of Simon Busuttil, the NAO found that the government had breached all procurement rules and that the contract given to Debono and Barbara was illegal.
While this report should have led the government to rescind the contract, Abela’s response was that he would ‘study’ the conclusions and take the necessary actions to safeguard taxpayers’ money.
However, no action has yet been taken, and the Dobono/Barbara company continues to take in in some €60,000 a day through this illegal contract.
The PN Opposition has also been conspicuously silent over this scandal, even though the investigation was the result of its efforts, albeit under a different leadership.
It is widely-known that both Silvio Debono and James Barbara are frequent doners to both political parties as well as to individual politicians from both sides of the political divide.
Anthony Ellul,the lead government consultant at the department issuing the new tender to Healthmark, previously worked as chief operations director at James Caterers. He is now employed as a “person of trust” by Active Ageing Minister Michael Farrugia.