Govt clears air on doctors

As doctors continue to vent out their disgruntlement with government over their remuneration, our reporter Pauline Hurungudo had an interview Health Services Board (HSB) executive chairperson Paulinus Sikhosana to hear the authorities’ side of the story.  

Q: Has there been any progress with regards issues that caused junior doctors to go on strike? 

A: Ok, perhaps let’s go through the issues one by way and then I can be able to answer.

Q: Ok; let’s start with the issue of the duty-free facility for those bringing vehicles from outside the country.

A: We have already begun the process. For one to be eligible for the duty free facility it’s a whole process that requires a Statutory Instrument (to be enacted). 

We used to have one and it used to be free for everyone but as you know they expire and so this is a new request and arrangement and we have already started rolling out. 

We have already requested the permanent secretary (in the ministry of Health) to start the process with Treasury and Zimra (the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority) to put in place necessary statutory instruments. 

This is not just for the doctors but it is for everyone in the health sector and we, as the board, have started the process and it is the duty of the permanent secretary.

Q: Has this been communicated to the doctors?

A: Yes, they were told, it was. There was even a bipartite meeting on the 5th (of January) where there was a report and communication on how far we have gone, the duty-free facility included. 

The doctors were saying that both of you (the board) have established better communication although there are these things that still need to be addressed. Ok and what is the second thing?

Q: They also spoke about the unfreezing of posts like the registrar.

A: Treasury has agreed to unfreeze posts and there is a schedule and it’s not only for registrars but for the whole health care sector. 

As a board we don’t only represent doctors but everyone so whatever we request we request for everyone. 

So in the discussions with Treasury we had requested for the unfreezing of posts for up to $10 million but with our consultations with the Health and Child Care ministry we estimated it to be around $12,5 million. 

The ministry of Finance agreed that they will provide those resources.

Q: And how many posts will be filled up?

A: There are 1 762 posts and this is for all heath workers across the board. They cover government institutions, rural district councils, — doctors, nurses, lab scientists, environmental health officers — all those posts that had been frozen. Treasury has agreed to release about $12 499 040.

The unfreezing did not happened yesterday, it has been a continual process, but not at the pace that they want to see. This has nothing to do with doctors but the whole health service. 

It’s just that doctors are the most vocal ones and it’s a process that could have just continued even if they didn’t go on strike and as a recent board we have been tirelessly working on it. And what is the next thing?

Q: During the strike, doctors were demanding salaries in US dollars and government had said that it is not possible.

A: Of course, it is not possible not just for them but the whole civil service. 

Q: So what has been done to cushion these workers?

A: There are issues that are specific to the health sector then there are issues that include the whole country.

Q: So it includes them?

A: Let’s not say them but let’s say the whole sector as long as you are eligible to receive it.

Q: Ok, so not everyone is eligible to receive it?

A: Yes, if you remember the managerial according to the circular.

Q: Oh yes!

A: And what is the other aspect of the question 

Q: The issue about not receiving their salaries from December.

A: They did not work the whole of December.

Q: So that is why they didn’t receive their salary?

A: It’s not as simple as that. They didn’t work in December and 10 days into January. Like anywhere else you don’t get paid if you don’t work. No work no pay.

However, what we have said for the December salary, those who have leave days can convert to work days — monetary value and those who don’t have any leave days to sell they will not have anything. 

I had also forgotten; for December they have an option to get an advance from their institutions or from the ministry. 

We, however, negotiated that they borrow money ranging between $500 - $1000 from a health fund which they will repay progressively. 

They got advances from their institutions depending on the request and availability of the funds.

Q: And for January as well are you deducting the days?

A: Then we come to January again about the 10 days.  

Although we asked Salary Service Bureau (SSB) to fully pay their salaries I think it’s only fair for people to get paid for the days they work for, no work no pay. 

We are not proud of that but these are work ethics.

For them to be paid their December salary according to the leave days like we said; there is a lot of paper work they need to submit; the leave forms and the leave forms needed to be approved and we needed to check with SSB that the days the hospitals have are correct but the institutions did not do some of the things that we asked them to do on time. 

Because some institutions did not, it meant that it may not be possible to pay some of them based on the leave days. 

So what we decided, that rather for these people not to be paid because of administrative issues, we decided to pay them the January salary in full but we adjust the 10 days when we pay them in February.

Those who have sold the leave days will be paid in February.

Q: So some doctors were saying they did not receive their full January salary today (January 31 2019)? 

A: Maybe for those who borrowed the deductions may have started but not at our instruction. Our instruction was to pay them in full. 

Because the advances which they borrowed belonged to the hospitals not to the Health and Child Care ministry because hospitals raise their own funds like the Health service fund so it might be a recovery of that money.

Q: My last question will be on the issues I asked before when you told me that you were in constant communication with the doctors about the duty-free facility. Have all you have told me been communicated to the doctors?

A: What happens is here there an actual strategic meeting then there is a subsequent meeting to review what has been said, that information that would have been discussed. 

I think the problem is the issue of communication.

The nurses have a good communication system, once decisions are made they communicate and the doctors have their own communication system but I will not delve into that.

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