While answering a parliamentary question about the latest updates on the government’s secretive negotiations with Steward Healthcare, the company which took over the “corrupt and fraudulent” hospitals concession deal, Health Minister Chris Fearne claimed, “the concession is what it is”.
“There cannot be any changes which modify the framework of the concession as procurement laws do not allow for this,” Fearne stated during last Wednesday’s plenary session in parliament.
“In the meantime, there are ongoing cases whose outcome will be interesting for us in the sense that it will affect our relationship with Steward Healthcare and the operation of the concession itself,” he added, referring to both the ongoing magisterial inquiry into the original concession as well as multiple pending court cases related to the concession, including one by Opposition MP Adrian Delia.
The statement follows more than two years in which the government constantly waffled about its position on the deal, repeatedly stating that Steward Healthcare is contractually obliged to provide healthcare services and that the government expects the company to deliver.
During one heated parliamentary sitting in April 2020, Prime Minister Robert Abela had claimed that the government was still considering revoking the concession to run three of Malta’s hospitals altogether.
The prime minister had even publicly stated that he agreed with the conclusions of a National Audit Office report published in July 2020. The report highlighted how the concession was predetermined and that the concession agreement itself provided “proof of collusion with government or its representatives”.
Abela’s previous statements are a far cry from what the government’s position seems to be today. In his speech on Wednesday, Fearne repeated his mantra about Steward Healthcare’s obligations while even claiming that those same obligations are being fulfilled when evidence shows otherwise.
“The VGH inquiry and the court case verdicts have not been issued. Steward Healthcare is contractually bound by the same concession obligations as their predecessors,” Fearne said.
“That contract was taken on by Steward Healthcare with the same conditions, and in fact, Steward Healthcare has taken over VGH’s shares in the project. We are still expecting Steward Healthcare to provide their services, which is what is happening,” he added.
What the health minister failed to explain is that, in reality, Steward Healthcare have been handed hundreds of millions of euros in taxpayer money and has failed to materialise promised investment amounting to €200 million.
Besides the millions awarded to Steward Healthcare to provide the service, taxpayers were also forced to fork out millions of euros to buy back unused cancer treatment equipment. Separately, Steward Healthcare blamed the government for its own decision to take on unpaid VAT debt from the previous concessionaires, debt which amounts to €37 million.
To add insult to injury, the office of the prime minister spent €300,000 on two direct orders which were issued for the provision of consultancy services for the review of the concession – an expenditure which was described by experts as a “waste of time and public funds” given the volume of evidence that points towards a vitiated deal.
The direct orders were issued while Steward Healthcare was busy engaging in a full-frontal PR offensive that peaked in February when the president of Steward Healthcare Malta, Nadine Delicata, expressed her “opinion”, claiming that the government and the previous concessionaires (that she also worked for) are to blame for the fraudulent deal.
Delicata failed to mention the intrinsic links between the top brass at Steward Healthcare and Vitals Global Healthcare, including the fact that she previously served as VGH’s vice-president of operations. Steward Healthcare’s CEO, Armin Ernst, also formerly served as the CEO of VGH.