In a story somewhat like David and Goliath, the Belize Medical and Dental Union (BMDU), which has only 58 paid members, wants to lead a public protest against Government’s plan to pump public resources into a private hospital, Universal Health Services (UHS), after GOB was forced to make good on the private hospital’s loan guarantee for $17 million, which has now turned into a $33 million public liability.
But the BMDU, which represents only public sector medics, is relying heavily on public support, as well as support from umbrella organization, the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB), which, according to its president, Senator Rene Gomez, has 7 active unions and between 12,000 and 15,000 members.
The unions have gotten Senator Godwin Hulse to be the guest speaker at a rally, which will be held at the Memorial Park following the street protest Saturday morning, February 17.
The march is scheduled to begin at 9:00 a.m. from the Memorial Park and it takes the standard route: into North Front Street, Queen Street, New Road, Douglas Jones Street, over the Belcan Bridge, into Vernon Street, Magazine Road, Cemetery Road, Orange Street, Albert Street, Regent Street, over the Swing Bridge, back into North Front Street and culminating at the Memorial Park at about 11:00 a.m.
One sister union which has publicly pledged its support to the BMDU is the Nurses Association of Belize (NAB), which reports a membership of 325.
NAB president, Isabel Bennett, told Amandala today that the Association’s position is that if the Government is going to pump public resources in UHS, it should become a public institution – and the UHS and all its staff should be on the same footing as the rest of the public health care system. Another concern, she said, is that the jobs of all nurses, whether they be nurses at Universal Health Services (UHS) or at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH), would be secure.
Government has said that since it will take full ownership of UHS, KHMH would have to focus on a different range of services, while UHS would be the highest-level hospital in the public health care system, dealing with the tertiary level cases and those that require very specialized treatment.
But the BMDU has said that rather than Government bailing out the private institution, it should use those public resources, including those that it will acquire by paying off UHS’s debt, to improve the public institutions that already exist across the country.
Gomez questioned why GOB is bailing out Universal.
But the biggest issue that the nurses and medics have raised is that the critical information about the deal—especially the financial details about UHS and the financial implications of the Government take-over—remains secret.
NAB president, Bennett, said that the UHS issue is really just “the tip of the iceberg” because the nurses have a list of 29 issues that they think need to be addressed: among them inadequate compensation for working on-call and outside the 8-hour shifts; the condition of their working environment; shortage of supplies, and the recent termination of a nurse, which she said was done without due process being followed.
It is not just the NAB that has other issues to address on Saturday. NTUCB president, Rene Gomez, said that there are four main issues the NTUCB is taking on in this public protest. They are the US$565 million “super bond”; the Commission of Inquiry into the Development Finance Corporation; the plight of the workers of the Belize Telecommunications Limited; and the UHS issue.
On the issue of the super bond, he said that while GOB would have paid US$300 million in interest with the original loan agreements, the restructured debt would require US$740 million in interest payments.
“Who will pay that? We? Our grandchildren? Who will win?” he questioned.
As regards to the Commission of Inquiry, Senator Gomez said that it is obvious that the work of the Commission of Inquiry, which the NTUCB had called for, is deliberately being undermined.
“You could see the games being played. Yesterday, the no-shows. The tactics to try to speed up the Commission, and it ain’t working. It will not work! This commission will be stalled for as long as these witnesses do not appear and put all sorts of technicalities,” said Gomez.
With regards to the BTL workers, Gomez said that the NTUCB is standing in solidarity with the Belize Communication Workers in their position that the 21-day strike notice issued about two weeks ago remains in effect, unless BTL rehires three workers that the union contends have been wrongly terminated.
He added that while the NTUCB wants to stay out of the fight between Michael Ashcroft and Jeff Prosser, teachers and public servants want to remind Government that they still have not gotten back their BTL original shares, which Government sold to Prosser in 2004 without the permission of the unions.
There are some old issues from the spate of protests in 2005 that still remain, prominent among them the lack of resolution of the Social Security Fund. Even though the Senate Special Select Committee had completed its work and filed its final report, their calls for the DPP to address the question of whether forgery was involved with certain insurance certificates have not yielded fruit. Gomez said that it is a matter that he and Senator Godwin Hulse will take up shortly.
“Saturday will mark the beginning of something that will happen in Belize – of processes countrywide – Belize City being the first,” Gomez said. “Eventually these protests will escalate because the Government needs to listen and do something about it.”
We asked Gomez what the unions hope to achieve in their march on Saturday. His reply was, “We want to accomplish accountability and transparency from the Government side – every deal and transaction, must follow the Audit Act, follow the guidelines.”
He said that the unions don’t want to overthrow the Government, but simply to send a message.
Dr. John Sosa, treasurer of BMDU, told Amandala that the conflict with Government over the UHS deal first started when Government announced it would amalgamate UHS and the KHMH. Then GOB decided that it would take 100% of UHS and keep it as a private company.
“The people of Belize should be the owners, and we are the ones who should decide how best to use the services the institution offers,” said Sosa.
We asked him whether Government’s announcement today that it had appointed a board to take charge of UHS made any difference. Sosa said no, because even though a select group of people will manage UHS, it will remain a private entity, and poor Belizeans still won’t have access. He said that even though Government has said it would pay for the poor to get services at UHS, no one has explained how Government, which claims to be cash-strapped, will pay UHS.
“Where will government get money from to pay for the poor? It will be cut from which part of the pie?” he asked.
Speaking with us today as a member of the BMDU, Dr. Martha Habet, who is also president of the Belize Medical Dental Association (BMDA), which represents both public and private sector doctors, said that her association is supporting the call for transparency in the UHS issue. The association has 70 members, including persons from the UHS and BMA. She said that she expects that those who have goodwill would go out and protest on Saturday.
“It’s a critical national issue, not a political issue,” said Dr. Habet.
This evening, the BMDU issued a statement denouncing the personal attacks that the ruling People’s United Party has made on Sosa through political ads. The BMDU statement says that Dr. Sosa is an upstanding, responsible member of staff and a public servant for 15 years, and it is unfortunate that they are attempting to attack, vilify, slander and smear him – the messenger, rather than addressing the message at hand…
Today Amandala contacted UHS nurse, Sharon Spencer, who is one of the appointees on the new UHS board. Spencer declined any comment to our newspaper on the issues. We asked her how she felt about her new appointment. She said that she does not want to comment, and does not want to be interviewed.
In a press conference this morning, Minister of Health, Hon. Joe Coye, who announced Spencer’s appointment to the new UHS board, told the media that he does not know what the motive is for the demonstration on Saturday.