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Medication debacle not a caring government’s finest moment

MARCH 7 — The recent cock-up involving the supply of medication to Armed Forces veterans and retired government servants raises the question if this is yet another bureaucratic mess attributed to incompetence and lack of foresight or how the administration regards and treats those who have served the country.

My Dad, a retired headmaster, was among thousands of retirees who was told recently when he went to collect his heart medication at the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre that a specific medication he needed was unavailable and he would have to wait awhile to get it.

Refusing to compromise his well-being, he forked out his own money to buy it from a private pharmacy. 

Previously, all he needed to do when government hospitals did not have the medication needed was to take the government doctor prescription and present it to the private pharmacy to get his drugs for free.

Not all retirees are as fortunate as my Dad who can afford to purchase his medication.

Don’t forget they are drawing less than half of their last drawn salary. Many have retired 15, 20 years ago and are earning the same pensions, albeit with lower purchasing value as the years go by. 

Medical attention is a crucial, if not the most important component of their entitlements as retired government servants. 

Medical security is one reason why they opt to join the government, knowing that they will be taken care of in their old age.

By and large, the government has provided for these groups of people who had dedicated their lives to serving the nation — whether as teachers, doctors, clerks and members of the security forces.

They continue to enjoy bonuses and handouts like BR1M and enjoy the house they had paid off before retirement, thanks to low interest government loans. And of course they enjoy free healthcare, even if it means spending five hours at a government hospital for consultation and prescription or spending a few days in a third class ward which looks like the sick bay of a concentration camp. (Go visit the Kuala Lumpur Hospital).

So back to the issue at hand, Oratis Rx Sdn Bhd was contracted to supply medicines and medical supplies not available at government hospitals to Armed Forces veterans and government pensioners from January 26, 2012 to January 27, 2017, via the Electronic Medical Automation Supply System (e-MASS).

After the expiry of the contract, that task will be taken over by the government. But despite a five-year head-start, no one asked “how do we dispense medicines after January 27, 2017.”

Hence, Oratis was allowed to continue supplying pharmaceuticals for another month.

Now that too has expired and retirees are put at risk with some of them being unable to obtain or afford their much-needed medication.

With the country’s fiscal health in need of a prescription of its own, this episode has left room for more speculation on the government’s inability to balance the books. This results in vulnerable folk paying the price for someone else’s (bad?) decisions.

Or worse, is there some horse-trading going on behind the scenes where some Abang Adik companies are lobbying to take over from Oratis, which according to feedback had been doing a good job?

Is it possible there is some reluctance to award the job to the right bidder because the preference is not for the qualified bidder?

Or is there a need to outsource this task at all?

By its own admission, the government has a bloated civil service of 1.6 million — one person to 19.73 persons. This has caused further speculation over the ability to make the monthly salaries, with some schools having to take bank overdrafts to pay its staff.

Could the issue of cost and efficiency in the dispensing of drugs be addressed by the proper allocation of existing resources?

Director General of the Public Services Department Datuk Seri Zainal Rahim Seman tries to lend some perspective to the issue and advises against pushing the panic button.

Contacted over the weekend, Zainal told me the services are currently being managed by the PSD and the health ministry, until and if a new company is appointed.

Acknowledging that there could be transitional issues, he said the PSD was aware that the contract would expire on January 26, 2017 and had already made necessary arrangements since May 2016. 

“In November 2016, this issue was again been discussed and the government had approved interim duration for the company until February 27, 2017. Until then, PSD had already taken over and managed the services,” he said in his message.

Zainal, who was only appointed on January 16 this year advised retirees to stick to the current procedures in obtaining their prescriptions and medication, saying nothing has changed, assuring that both the PSD and the health ministry were working to guarantee constant supply of medication.

While the likes of Zainal are doing what they can to clean up a mess caused by others, this episode is inconsistent with the government’s “People First” promise, especially when the well-being of senior citizens is compromised. 

Indeed it is not the administration’s finest moment.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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