Moonilal: Government wasted money that could have helped patients

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

The Ministry of Health Administrative Building at Queen’s Park East, Port of Spain. – Photo by Roger Jacob

Although Rural Development and Local Government Minister Faris Al-Rawi blamed the Opposition for narrowing government’s options to increase revenue in Parliament on Friday, opposition MP Dr Roodal Moonilal offered another explanation for resource constraints – financial wastage.

In his contribution to a debate on health-care delivery in the House of Representative on Friday, Moonilal said the government spent almost $400 million to construct a new Ministry of Health  and a multi-storey carpark near the San Fernando General Hospital (SFGH) with money that could have helped patients.

He said, “Four hundred million dollars gone into health-related infrastructure that does not touch on a patient in terms of equipment, in terms of machines, in terms of medication, in terms of cutting down waiting time. While they were spending $400 million, 500 doctors were unemployed in this country.”

Apart from claiming the new headquarters was a waste of money, he raised concerns over the Build-Own-Lease-Transfer (BOLT) contract used to construct it. He said according to the project contract, the government transferred the property to Asclepius Holdings Ltd to use as equity to secure a loan to finance the project.

Furthermore, he said the project now left the government on the hook for a $30 million annual bill to the contractor for the next 15 years – a total of $450 million by the end of the period.

“The government could have simply used the land itself and built a building for $260 million. Why go through all this intricacy to pay $30 million per year for 15 years?”

Moonilal was quoting from a February 19, 2024 release on the website of Aleron Ltd, an engineering company associated with the project. Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh previously announced the cost at the building’s ribbon-cutting ceremony last year.

He then explained that the ministry had been renting for decades and had nothing to show for it. Deyalsingh said, with the new building, at the end of the 15 years, it will be owned by the government.

On Friday, Moonilal also claimed the SFGH spent $100,000 weekly to dispose of medical waste through contracts since its furnace stopped working owing to lack of maintenance. He said the hospital had also been spending $75,000 weekly on standby generators as its three in-house generators were not working.

In response to Moonilal’s claims about the medical-waste-disposal bill, Tobago East MP Ayanna Webster-Roy said an autoclave machine would be commissioned at SFGH on Monday and would be able to safely treat 1.8 tonnes of medical waste daily.

Members were debating a motion piloted by opposition MP Dr Rishad Seecheran in January. It claimed the government failed to provide safe, reliable, and compassionate health-care services for all citizens.

Udecott head: Moonilal mistaken

Contacted for a response to the claims Moonilal made in Parliament earlier on Friday, Udecott chairman Noel Garcia told Newsday the former housing minister did not understand how the BOLT arrangement worked.

“It is clear that Dr Moonilal does not have the basic understanding of what a PPP (public-private partnership) model is. Instead of trying to educate himself, he resorts to saying things that make absolutely no sense.

“PPP mechanisms are used by governments throughout the world. As I said previously, Dr Moonilal needs some remedial classes in maths, and I am now offering, at my cost, to send him on a course on the fundamentals of PPP models.

“It appears that his narrative changes on a whim. For months he pursued that the Central Block was being mismanaged and will never finish and millions of taxpayers’ dollars will go down the drain. Now that the Central Block is well on its way to completion in March 2025 he has now changed his narrative and is starting another conspiracy theory.

“It is time Moonilal grows up and takes his responsibility seriously and stops his childlike prattle.”

Garcia provided a document to Newsday explaining how the project was done under the BOLT arrangement. It said NH International (Caribbean) Ltd emerged as the top-ranked bidder for the project after a rigorous procurement process, on the premise it would incorporate a special purpose vehicle (SPV), Asclepius Holdings Ltd.

“A November 2020 release from Republic Bank Ltd announced the SPV was a joint venture between itself and NH International. It was with this SPV that Udecott entered into the BOLT agreement.”

The Udecott document said Asclepius then hired NH International as the builder. For the project to begin, the state first needed to vest the land to Udecott via a deed of lease for 50 years, which was executed on July 24, 2020, and registered on August 21, 2020.

Udecott then granted a property lease to the SPV for it to own and operate the property for 20 years. This was done on September 15, 2020, and registered on November 19, 2020.

With the property lease, Asclepius Holdings raised private-sector financing which fully funded the project. On completion, Udecott entered into an agreement with Asclepius to lease the building for 15 years during which the Health Ministry will occupy the building and a rent will be paid to maintain and repay the cost of the building.

After 15 years, the cost of the building will be fully repaid and ownership will be transferred to Udecott at a peppercorn cost.

The document said a BOLT arrangement is a common feature of PPP structures.