File Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
File Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

The North West health department’s turnaround team has put all new infrastructure spending projects on hold as its seeks to stabilise its finances, parliament heard on Wednesday.

The department was placed under national administration by the cabinet in terms of section 100(b) of the constitution in April, following a protracted strike and violent protests aimed at removing premier Supra Mahumapelo, which closed clinics and hospitals and led to an extensive shortage of medicine.

The department’s administrator Jeanette Hunter and her team painted a picture of a poorly managed department that had run out of cash by September last year, mid-way through the 2017-2018 spending cycle. It began the 2018-2019 fiscal year on April 1 owing suppliers close to R1bn: its total budget is R11bn.

Inadequately managed infrastructure projects are the key contributor to the accruals, said the department’s Johan de Klerk. The department has overspent on some projects, while others have been completed sooner than expected, putting immense strain on the budget.

"We postponed whatever we could, but we are in deep trouble again this year," he said. Infrastructure accruals are likely to run to R160m this year.

In the face of continued industrial action and labour relations that she described as "fragile", Hunter was at pains to emphasise the dedication of many healthcare professionals who continue to serve patients under trying conditions and the efforts her team are making to ensure they receive outstanding overtime pay. Government rules limit overtime to 30% of a person’s salary, but many personnel have exceeded this limit in short-staffed hospitals and clinics, said Hunter.

The government is often criticised for having a bloated public service, but many public healthcare facilities are understaffed because civil servants are employed in the wrong places, Hunter said. Staff feel overwhelmed by the demands placed on them because so many posts stand empty. "No vacancies had been filled for the four years prior to the [section 100] intervention. We cannot squeeze the health department any further."

The North West health department had 4,220 vacancies, she said, but there is only enough money to fill about half of them.