Hospice closes amid funds probe

Hospice closes amid funds probe

KwaZulu-Natal health department orders audit after allegations of financial mismanagement.

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Two days ago (27 March) the Dream Centre hospice closed its doors forever, depriving 120 patients of a place to stay and 100 staff of their jobs.

The six-storey hospice building in central Pinetown has also been controversially auctioned off for R26.5-million ‘€“ after being bought with a housing department subsidy for around R3.3-million.

Hospice management say they cannot afford to run the facility any longer as the Department of Health has not increased its subsidies since 2006. But the department has ordered an audit of the facility amid ‘€œserious allegations of mismanagement’€.

The hospice was run by four men, Neville de Witt, his son Gary, Leslie Harris and his son, Clinton. Staff allege that the men ran the hospice, registered as a non-profit, as a family business. In fact, Gary ran a carpet business, Carpet Flair, from the basement of the hospice as well as being paid a salary from the hospice.

Meanwhile, Neville allegedly charged the hospice R16 000 a month for ‘€œpastoral care and counselling’€ of patients ‘€“ via a church he used to run in Canada, alongside his monthly salary, according to staff who were shown documents about this by auditors.

Clinton Harris billed the hospice R62 000 a month to do the accounts from a private company ‘€“ aside from getting a salary. Other private companies owned by the men also billed the centre for security and management fees. Health-e has seen the documentation about this.

‘€œThe Department of Health has received information from various sources, including staff, where serious allegations of mismanagement have been alleged. The department is in the process of finalising its investigation into the various allegations,’€ said spokesperson Chris Maxon.

PriceWaterhouseCooper is currently auditing the centre on behalf of the department, although the management says it has submitted audited reports to the department every year without getting any complaints.

Health department sources said one of the key allegations being investigated is that management regularly fraudulently inflated patient figures to claim a bigger subsidy, as the department paid a daily patient subsidy of R210.

The first time that hospice ever had its full complement of 120 patients was on 15 February last year, according to a report in the latest ‘€œnoseweek’€ magazine. Staff member Immanuel Mpungose told Health-e that the hospice averaged ‘€œ80 to 90 patients a day, not 120’€.

Dr Sandile Buthelezi, head of strategic health programmes, said: ‘€œOn a monthly basis, we contributed not less than R749 000 towards the centre which receives donations from many other funders. Our contribution of R210 per patient per day is’€¦ almost double the national norm.’€

However, Gary de Witt says he and the other directors received ‘€œa pittance’€ and did the work because they wanted to ‘€œmake a contribution to the community’€.

He said that the department had not increased the centre’€™s subsidy since April 2006, yet suppliers costs were steadily increasing. This year, the centre had asked for a 22 percent increase to accommodate wage increases agreed to after the public sector strike, but only got a R10 per patient increase.

A few weeks back, a number of hospice staff went on strike as they had received no increase for the past three years. The average wage of the 60 strikers ‘€“ mostly general assistants ‘€“ was R1 600, according to shop steward Princess Madondo.

 ‘€œAll the staff are sad,’€ said a tearful nursing sister who had worked at the hospice for seven years. ‘€œClosing an institution like this is not nice. People are dying of HIV in this province. Some patients’€™ families don’€™t want them. They have been dumped here and they have nowhere to do,’€ she added, asking to remain anonymous.

 Other staff said they had been given less than two week’€™s notice, and were ‘€œdesperate’€ to find other jobs and ‘€œconfused’€ about why the centre had closed so rapidly.

However, Gary said that management had been battling to maintain and pay for the large facility, which cost around R800 000 a month to run before staff increases, and around R950 000 if staff were to be paid the increases agreed on.

He also said that management had discussed with health department officials the possibility of downscaling and running smaller hospices near to the main hospitals using the Dream Centre, namely RK Khan and Prince Mshiyeni hospitals in September last year.

However, the health department had suddenly cancelled the Dream Centre’€™s service level agreement two weeks ago, which meant that all staff had to be retrenched.

Gary also said that the housing department had been aware of management’€™s plans to sell the building ‘€“ which is owned by Mophela Housing Project, a Harris-de Witt controlled Section 21 organisation ‘€“ since October last year.

‘€œThe money from the sale is to go into a trust controlled by our lawyer. The housing department has already given us the name of their representative on that trust, so there is no question that we were going to pocket that money,’€ said Gary.

‘€œThe plan was to pay off our creditors, open the three or four smaller hospices and invest the rest of the money to help with the running of these.’€

However, two weeks ago the housing department called Gary to a meeting and said that the auction could not go ahead without the Housing MEC’€™s approval.

While the auction did go ahead two days later, a clause was inserted in the sale agreement making provision for the MEC’€™s approval to be obtained within 30 days or the sale would fall through.

Until recently, the Dream Centre was touted as a model hospice and last year it was visited by Members of Parliament, a Chinese delegation being hosted by the health department and  representatives from three provincial legislatures.

Health MEC Peggy Nkonyeni even approached management to run a pilot programme using traditional medicine including uBhejane to treat AIDS patients. However, relations soured dramatically when her plans were leaked and management backed off. The Dream Centre management says the health department turned on them after that.

However, a health department official said they had been receiving complaints of mismanagement for quite some time, and that the audit would provide all the answers. ‘€“ Health-e News Service.