By Melanius Alphonse
Caribbean News Now associate editor
CASTRIES, St Lucia — The opposition Saint Lucia Labour Party (SLP) says that, when it is returned to power in Saint Lucia, it will seek to undo any arrangement entered into by the current United Workers Party (UWP) government that seeks to privatise the Owen King EU (OKEU) hospital, which was funded by the European Union.
The current government has reportedly been discussing the privatisation of the OKEU hospital with several interested parties, and is specifically in final negotiations with Health City Cayman to take over the management and operations of the hospital.
Construction of the OKEU commenced in 2005, during the 2001-2006 SLP administration. However, the hospital was not completed during the subsequent UWP five-year term of office from 2006-2011, despite the fact that European Union funding was available.
Following the SLP’s return to office in 2011, all major construction work had been completed by February 2016 and ancillary works were in progress. All equipment had been procured and expected to be installed, commissioned and training completed by September 2016.
However, for reasons that remain obscure, when the UWP returned to power in June 2016 under new Prime Minister Allen Chastanet, work on the OKEU was once again halted.
Dr Stephen King signed a three-year contract with government in June 2016, under which he was tasked to help develop ways to modernise and improve the health sector. However, the UWP government opted to end that agreement just one year later.
While the SLP has asserted that the gift of a hospital from the European Union was never meant to be privatised, Chastanet’s political attaché said last week that, even though there has been much talk about privatisation, “there has been nothing definitive about the system of management for the OKEU hospital”.
“There have been many pronouncements about the way forward for the government whether it’s a PPP, privatisation or whatever. According to the information that has been put out by the government, consultations and discussions on the way forward are still not final,” Norbert Williams said.
“There is no legislation, there is no final answer on how the OKEU hospital is going to be managed,” he also asserted, apparently oblivious to the existence of the Millennium Heights Medical Complex Act, passed by the former SLP government, which provides a comprehensive framework for the operation of the new hospital, including protections for the current staff at Victoria Hospital.
A report that Health City Cayman, the private sector entity planning to take over the OKEU hospital, has insisted that all public sector healthcare employees be terminated so that the new management company can decide who to rehire or otherwise, has also generated its own controversy.
Chastanet has, however, denied that any employees will lose their jobs.
He nevertheless had to back down from a similar proposal in relation to the proposed creation of a new border control agency after customs officers went on a two-day “sick-out” in protest.
Meanwhile, opposition to privatisation of the hospital is so high that a group of placard-bearing protesters gathered outside the hospital on Wednesday in the hope of bringing that message across to representatives of the European Union Court of Auditors who were in Saint Lucia on island to ensure that EU funds are correctly accounted for and spent in accordance with the relevant rules and regulations.
According to Philip Dalsou, national authorising officer, the auditors were due to engage in reviewing information related to the design, construction and supply of equipment to the OKEU hospital.
The possible privatisation of the OKEU hospital is the second major UWP policy decision that the SLP has promised to reverse.
In January last year, the SLP announced it will review every economic citizenship granted by the UWP government under new citizenship by investment programme (CIP) rules promulgated by Chastanet, apparently to accommodate a new development project agreement signed with Chinese-backed Desert Star Holdings (DSH).
“Without any hesitation, when the Labour Party resumes office, we will reinstate the net worth requirement and will undertake another due diligence assessment on each and every application granted under the UWP, with our promise to revoke any passports of applicants, who do not meet the $3 million net worth requirement or do not meet the strict due diligence requirements which Saint Lucians expect. Applicants applying for citizenship in St Lucia should be warned that when the SLP is returned to office, we will also demand that all citizens who did not donate the full contribution amount of US$200,000, will be compelled to top up the contribution that they made at the time of becoming citizens,” the SLP said in a statement at the time.
The uncertainty in this regard created by the SLP has reportedly led to Saint Lucia’s CIP underperforming in comparison to its Eastern Caribbean counterparts in Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, and St Kitts and Nevis.
Meanwhile the operations, due diligence, legal requirements, e.g., no mandatory annual report to parliament and details of the use of CIP funds, remain shrouded in mystery.