Reports that President Ian Khama initiated a policy aimed at removing patients from medical cover for self-inflicted harm were put to test on Friday before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health, Shenaz El-Halabi, found herself with her back against the wall as PAC pressed her to either confirm or deny that President Khama initiated the policy during one of his State of the Nation Address.
Selibe Phikwe West Member of Parliament Dithapelo Keorapetse was the first to draw blood when he asked El-Halabi to state whether she heard or learnt about a pronouncement by President Khama when delivering State of the Nation Address that “self-inflicted harm related conditions will be paid for by patients and not the government.”
Seated opposite each other, Keorapetse and Shenaz locked horns over key issues such as the process followed to reach a decision contained in Savingram No. MH9/43 dated 29 March 2017 addressed to all DHMT Heads, whether President Khama initiated the decision and the definition of self-inflicted harm.
El-Halabi was at pains when Keorapetse demanded a “yes or “no” to whether she heard or learnt about the initiative from President Khama’s State of the Nation Address. Shenaz did choked on her response, prompting PAC Chairman, Abraham Kesupile to intervene.
“His Excellency’s speech is meant to tell the world how the country is doing and in that speech there are policy pronouncements. Did you go back and look at the speech?”
Before Shenaz could reply, Keorapetse explained that “I think it was off the text. His Excellency made it in Parliament,” to which Shenaz replied that “I must have missed it.”
Shenaz was non-committal prompting Keorapetse to accuse her of speaking in forked tongue.
“Doctor you are under oath; you can’t speak in forked tongues,” he said.
Shenaz conceded saying that, “no I didn’t hear it (announcement by President Khama).”
Keorapetse then asked Shenaz to take the PAC through the process followed when coming up with the policy; “whether this was coming from President Khama or it was coming from outside her Ministry because this was made by President Khama.”
At this stage, Shenaz appealed to Kesupile to rein in Keorapetse who was apparently in his element.
“Honourable Chair, I have been asked to make a re-submission regarding this issue,” she said.By being advised to make a re-submission, Shenaz was making reference to a recommendation by another PAC member, Bogolo Kenewendo who had earlier on sought statistics relating to what could have motivated the ministry to come up with the policy in question (Shenaz had stated that they came up with the policy to contain escalating costs). But Kesupile overruled her and advised her to stick and respond to questions asked by Keorapetse.
“We are discussing the savingram. Just simply answer the questions. If you answer those not asked you are putting yourself into trouble. Don’t put yourself in a position whereby you are like in court and you are going to be jailed; just state the facts,” Kesupile said.
Shenaz said the policy was the initiative of her ministry and added that after they had drafted it, they forwarded it to Cabinet.
But Keorapetse dug in his heels.
“Were you advised that it is legal and within your powers in terms of the constitution, Public Health Act and its regulations as well as international humanitarian law and standards to issue the decision contained in the savingram?” he asked. Shenaz replied in the affirmative.
“Do you agree that the savingram and or the decision therein is oppressive and a gratuitous violation of the rights of patients with no legal basis,” Keorapetse further asked. Shenaz said the savingram was suspended following a public backlash.
Kesupile sought to know “what is meant by suspending the savingram. Is the plan still in motion? You used two terms; withdrawing and suspending?”
Shenaz replied that “there is a possibility that it may come in a different form and may not come back.”
Keorapetse concluded that “I want to put it to you that it is illegal (policy) and it cannot be accepted. You know that; you are a doctor, it has no legal basis.”