ARUA. Ms Jamilah Atim’s ‘contribution’ in the famous ‘stealing from the sick’ BBC documentary by renowned journalist, Solomon Serwanjja didn’t only cause outrage but helped underscore the ease and extend to which a perennial suspicion of theft of drugs had reached.
Arua regional referral hospital (ARRH) has been in the spotlight for theft of drugs and equipment but the public did not have a clear lead to these acts.
In February 2017, police arrested two officials on suspicion of stealing an autoclave machine in the hospital; a year earlier, the district security committee said they were investigating the board and management of the hospital for suspected sale of government drugs in the open market.
Indeed, the regional hospital that also doubles as Arua district hospital had particularly had a ‘cat and mouse’ relationship with the local leaders, district chairman Sam Wadri Nyakua often times voicing open discontent.
For the people who had followed the events in the hospital for all these years, it wouldn’t be a surprise that the authorities there still denied any wrongdoing in the BBC documentary and chose to allocate the blame to individuals.
Hospital gets new board, August 2019.
Finally, a new board of governors was inaugurated after a gap of two years. The thirteen-man team consisting of professional health doctors, a lawyer, an engineer, health economists, pharmacist, an entrepreneur and a senior health worker of ARRH assumed office.
Dr. Joyce Moriku, the state minister of health in charge of primary health care knowing the sour history between the hospital and the local leaders, urged people to forget the past and forge a future while appealing to the board to strike a cordial relationship with other stakeholders to erase the bad past image.
The utter skepticism and a lukewarm reception of what was ideally to be great news meant that the challenges to get back public confidence in the institution from the local populace were not merely down to a new board but what they would do; boards had come and gone but the bigger problem persisted.
February 2020, new board uncovers massive theft.
On February 20, the board convened in line with their mandatory quarterly meetings, but the issues at hand had come to a defining moment.
“We are meeting to discuss the massive theft and fraudulent procurements in the hospital after we launched an internal investigation,” Dr. Sam Okuonzi, the board chairman told the press.
Okounzi further revealed that the regional equipment maintenance unit that specializes in biomedical engineering and servicing of all equipment in the hospital had been at the forefront of this massive theft of equipment.
He mentioned some of the key multi-million equipment stolen in recent times as an Autoclave machine and a tool kit containing a number of assorted tools for repair works.
This in addition to over 40 other items that were stolen from the unit and brought back on the craftiness and intention to obtain money with the guise of it being new equipment.
“But some of the people who were involved are still here that is what we are discussing today. We have decided that we are going to discontinue some of the people who masterminded these acts but those that were misled are going to be warned,” Okuonzi confirmed.
He denied that a biomedical engineer, Mr Francis Obeti was unfairly dismissed after leaking information on the dubious activities going on in the unit, clarifying that instead, Mr Obeti’s contract had expired.
Hospital director speaks out
Asked how much the thefts could have cost the hospital, Dr Philbert Nyeko, the hospital director despite pointing to a huge loss did not give specific figures.
“It’s difficult to say how much, but it is so much, we only have the suspicion, we are working on to the lead and we hope we will find out,” Dr. Nyeko said.
However, besides the persistent theft, staff shortfalls and a meagre operations budget have greatly affected service delivery in the hospital.
“We are supposed to have 41 specialised doctors but we only have seven, how good is that?” Nyeko asked.
He said the problem is made worse because some of the lower health centre IV’s do not also have doctors and as a result, most people throng the referral unit that is ideally supposed to be for specialised cases only.
The regional hospital has an operations budget of about shs9 billion for the last five years against an expected shs24 billion.
It’s early to measure the success of this new board but regarding the boldness to reveal the rot to the media, it is a step in the right direction as unnecessary confidentiality has only done much harm to the image of the institution.
However, this crop of new members needs to maintain the grip on this perennial theft problem if they are to get back public confidence in the institution.