People wait to be helped at Chaiwelo clinic in Soweto. Picture: SOWETAN/VELI NHLAPO
People wait to be helped at Chaiwelo clinic in Soweto. Picture: SOWETAN/VELI NHLAPO

The EFF put its case to parliament on Wednesday for government-funded clinics to be open around the clock, arguing that anything less infringed on people’s constitutional rights to dignity and access to healthcare.

Most public sector clinics only offer services to patients on weekdays between 7am and 4pm, compelling patients to seek primary healthcare services at hospitals when they need care outside these hours. Only a small minority of public sector clinics, such as those operated by the City of Johannesburg, provide extended operating hours.

Some community health centres, including several in the Western Cape and Gauteng, offer emergency services after hours

The EFF’s proposal is contained in a private member’s bill introduced by MP Suzan Thembekwayo, which seeks to amend the National Health Act to compel clinics and community health centres to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The act currently sets out the services clinics must provide, but does not stipulate their operating hours.

The bill was first introduced to the National Assembly in September 2018, but was not processed by parliament before it rose ahead of the 2019 national election. It was revived by parliament in October 2019.  

Few private member’s bills have been passed by parliament, but opposition parties often use them to put pressure on the ruling ANC to deliver on policy positions, or challenge the status quo.

The limited operating hours offered by most clinics constrains access to critical primary healthcare services, particularly in townships and rural areas, said Thembekwayo.

“People do not only get sick or suffer injury during the day when clinics are open,” she told parliament’s portfolio committee on health, noting that many people live far from hospitals and cannot afford transport costs

EFF MP Naledi Chirwa said extended clinic hours would reduce the patient load on hospitals and improve access to healthcare for the working population.

She conceded the party’s proposal has significant resource implications, as additional staff would need to be hired.

“However, what the bill purports to do easily counterweighs any cost constraints, and the department must be in a position to progressively build these additional posts into their budgets,” she said.

In response to questions from MPs about the financial implications of the bill, Thembekwayo said it is the duty of the executive, not parliament, to find the money. “This is a national priority that should not be stopped because of cost concerns. We make laws that we think are reasonable and fair. The department must operationalise this.”

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