Fiji’s Health Minister Defends Fund Diversion and Raises FijiFirst Healthcare Project Concerns

Fiji’s Minister for Health Dr. Atonio Lalabalavu defended the diversion of funds from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Education’s $200 Back To School initiative during the debate on the 2023-2024 Budget.

Dr Atonio said funds from the ministry, totalling $10.4 million, that were diverted early this year could not have been spent within the allocated financial year.

Responding to criticism from the Leader of Opposition Inia Seruiratu, Dr. Atonio also questioned the previous government’s commitment to healthcare quality, highlighting incomplete projects, including the Rotuma Hospital which remains to be completed nine years on.

$10.4 million Health Allocation Deployed to $200/Student Support

In January this year, leading up to the start of the 2023 school year, the Ministry of Health redirected a significant amount of funds, totalling $10.4 million, including VAT component of $868,500 back to the Ministry of Finance. This decision was made to support the Fiji Coalition Government’s back-to-school initiative, which allocated $50 million to provide $200 per child for students in kindergarten up to year 13.

The ministry’s contribution accounted for the largest portion of the overall support fund towards the $50 million back-to-school initiative. The scheme assisted a total of 223,475 students, resulting in a disbursal of $44.7 million.

Savusavu Refurbishment Project

Among the projects for which the $10.4 million was set aside in the current financial year, were the Savusavu Hospital Refurbishment works, the CWM Hospital maternity unit, and the renovation of the interior of the Labasa Hospital.

“The deployed funds were from allocations that we knew could not be spent within the allocated financial year because by the latter half of the last financial year, the scoping of a number of capital projects including the Savusavu Hospital Refurbishment Project had not yet been completed.

“We knew that by the time the scoping would be completed, we would have to rely on the budget that is currently under debate and discussion today to fund the refurbishment. This was because of the highly centralised tender process, which in the previous Government, was all done in the Construction Implementation Unit.”

To overcome the challenge, the Ministry of Health embarked on a community engagement program, which Dr Atonio said has already yielded positive outcomes in facilities like the Savusavu Hospital and other smaller healthcare centers nationwide.

In the 2023-24 Budget, $250,000 has been allocated for the refurbishment of the hospital. In the 2022-2023 Budget, $1.8 million was set aside for the refurbishment as well as land stabilisation.

The ministry has also initiated a controlled decentralisation process to ensure more efficient completion of tender processes and timely capital expenditure in the future.

CWMH Maternity Unit Construction and Labasa Hospital Interior Refurbishment

For capital projects especially the CWMH Maternity Unit Construction and the Labasa Hospital Interior Refurbishment, Dr Atonio said the tenders had to be “repeatedly withdrawn” due to escalating costs of building material, “thus expenditure within the allocated financial year would not be possible.”

The 2023-24 Budget does not appear to have any allocation for the CWM Maternity Unit, but it has set aside $5 million for the renovation of the Labasa Hospital.

FijiFirst Works

Whilst acknowledging FijiFirst’s accomplishments in the healthcare sector during their term, including the construction of Nakasi Health Centre, Valelevu Health Centre, Navosa Hospital in Keiyasi, and renovations at Colonial War Memorial Hospital (CWMH), Dr. Atonio expressed concerns about certain issues.

These included the lack of sewerage connection at Nakasi Health Centre, Navosa Hospital relying on borrowed items, the prolonged delay in completing Rotuma Hospital despite significant investments, and the poor condition of CWMH, which was highlighted during a State of the Nation’s Infrastructure Media Tour in February.

“Today there is no connection of sewerage to the main line at Nakasi Health Centre. Navosa Hospital in Keiyasi officially opened its doors with borrowed items from various hospitals and health centres. The Rotuma Hospital cost the ministry approximately $ 8 million to build. The groundbreaking ceremony was held in December 2014, yet nine (9) years down the line, it has yet to be completed and we have given a timeline until September.

“The State of the Nation’s Infrastructure Media Tour in February, revealed the appalling state of the 100-year-old Colonial War Memorial Hospital.”

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