Government is getting ready to close a $33 million deal with the Belize Bank, a Michael Ashcroft company, wherein it will settle the loan of Universal Health Services (UHS) by handing over a large chunk of Northern Ambergris Caye – in excess of 8,000 acres of public property – to the bank.
This is the most significant money deal GOB has cut since it cut the US$89 million deal with Ashcroft and American Jeffrey Prosser for the sale of a supermajority of shares in Belize Telecommunications Limited. That controversial deal is still haunting BTL, and while the BTL debate is reaching a new peak, Government is about to proceed full steam with the UHS deal – despite plans for a public demonstration against it on Saturday, February 17.
In fact, Health Minister, Hon. Joe Coye, met with the media this morning to say that GOB will close the deal with the Belize Bank in a day or two, and a new board will be in charge of the Universal Health Group – which includes Universal Hospital, Integral Health Care and the Pathology Lab – as of Monday morning, February 19.
What our newspaper found particularly queer is that Mr. Coye claims that he does not know who from the Ministry of Finance is handling the bank deal for GOB. The Minister further said that Government has not seen UHS’s accounts, and when we asked what the value of the collateral is that Government would be taking over since it is paying UHS’s debt, which was secured with some assets, Coye also told us that he doesn’t know – which we also found strange, since the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) – a wholly Government-owned corporation – has taken a second mortgage on the assets.
Government will know the financial details when it moves in and takes over UHS, because it will get a balance sheet that details all the assets and liabilities, Coye told the media.
“I don’t want the media to take it that because I cannot answer them that it’s something funny going on…I am not here to answer every question on every matter. I am not that big of a Minister,” he added.
At the beginning of his presentation Minister Coye said that there are three components to the Government’s implementation plan: (1) settle the $33 million debt with the Belize Bank; (2) value the UHS assets; (3) set up a board to look after the management of the UHS group and to recommend to Government what they should really do with the institution.
The media questioned how Government is now announcing that it will take step three when it has not yet reached step two – the valuation of the assets. To this, Coye responded that step 3 was one of the key recommendations of the Ministerial task force – the same task force the Belize Medical and Dental Union stepped down from after they complained that critical financial information was not forthcoming from UHS, thus they could not do a proper analysis.
Minister Coye told us today that the only report he has from his task force is a preliminary one, despite reports that a final report had been tabled to him after the Minister gave them an extension beyond their January deadline.
When the media pressed Coye about the financial information for UHS, his response was simply that he did not know, and he, furthermore, does not know who in the Ministry of Finance has been dealing with the bank transaction – despite the fact the UHS takeover has been discussed at Cabinet on more than one occasion. What is more significant is that Coye sits on the Public Finance Committee, which is mandated to have oversight of public finances.
After the G-7 rebellion of Coye and six other Cabinet ministers in August of 2004, the Musa administration appointed two Ministers of State (Coye was one of them) as well as a Public Finance Committee – this after resounding cries from within and without for more oversight in the management of public funds. These appointments were touted as major achievements in the move towards greater transparency and accountability.
Despite the claims to transparency, though, Coye claimed today that he does not know who from the Ministry of Finance has been dealing with the bank.
Previously he told us that the Financial Secretary, Dr. Barnett, was one of those persons, but when we later asked Dr. Barnett how the negotiations were going, she said she was not involved with that any at all and she could say who was.
On at least two occasions, Coye suggested that the deal is being handled by powers greater than he – an “all-powerful Minister,” he said, who the newspaper takes to mean Hon. Ralph Fonseca, former Minister of Finance.
Coye said that the Ministry of Finance had given the guarantee to Belize Bank on behalf of the DFC. If the loan agreement was penned on September 2002 – as UHS majority shareholder, Dr. Victor Lizarraga has told Amandala in prior interviews – it means that it was the Prime Minister, Hon. Said Musa, who would have signed it.
Some KHMH doctors are calling for a disclosure of that guarantee document, as they still have a hard time believing that Government could have given such an open-ended promise to the bank – one that started out with a $17 million liability but which has now almost doubled to $33 million.
But the controversy is not just over the UHS debt – it is also over $12 million that UHS owes the DFC. Coye said that when Government takes over the institution, it would have to look at how it will settle the DFC debt – which, in effect, means that Government itself would settle the debt since GOB will own 100% of UHS.
Some medical professionals have also questioned how Government could make UHS viable enough to pay its debt when under private management it could not meet debt payments for the past three years. They say that they can only see this happening if Government subsidizes the hospital, which, they add, would mean that less money would be available for other public sector entities.
At the time of this writing, though, it is clear that the public and the workers immediately affected by the UHS-GOB deal still have more questions than answers – and sadly, the only man who has the guts to face the media on this issue claims not to have the answers to those hard questions.
Still, Coye says that he wants the Government takeover to be finished within three to four weeks.
In explaining why Government is moving ahead with the takeover now – Coye said that is because the current owners of UHS have “concurred.” Why Government would need the “concurrence” of UHS directors when it is paying off a $33 million debt for UHS is anybody’s guess.
Coye also informed that Troy Gabb would no longer be UHS’s Chief Executive Officer. He will be replaced by Dr. Peter Allen, the director of policy and planning in the Ministry of Health. The former CEO in that Ministry, Henry Anderson, will head the new UHS board. Other board members will be Evelyn Deeks, George Swift, Andre Sosa, Sharon Spencer (UHS nurse) and Artemio Osorio – economist in the Ministry of Finance.
Minister Coye also told the press that he hopes that the current shareholders in UHS medical staff, including Dr. Victor Lizarraga, would remain on board at UHS.
“Dr. Lizarraga will work there as a surgeon, but he will no longer be one of the owners,” Coye said. “We want all the specialists to remain once we can keep [UHS] going.”