Tue | Jul 23, 2024

Tardy accounts block assessment of $700b spent by health ministry

Published:Thursday | June 20, 2024 | 12:48 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
Dunstan Bryan, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness.
Dunstan Bryan, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness.
Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis.
Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis.
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Jamaican taxpayers and the Parliament are still unable to assess how the Ministry of Health and Wellness spent almost $700 billion in public resources allocated to the ministry over a 10-year period, owing to the apparent failure by Permanent Secretary Dunstan Bryan to submit the appropriation accounts to the auditor general in keeping with the Financial Administration and Audit (FAA) Act.

A Gleaner query to the Auditor General’s Department (AuGD) on Tuesday revealed that the backlog of appropriation accounts that had been flagged in successive annual reports of the Auditor General (AG) are yet to be submitted for review.

Jeanette Calder, executive director of the Jamaica Accountability Meter Portal (JAMP), says she is not surprised that there is no progress at the health ministry regarding its legal obligation to account for the money the public has provided over the last 10 years. She contends that this is not a new problem and has been allowed to persist for decades.

The Health and Wellness Ministry reported early last year that the appropriations accounts for fiscal years 2013-2014 to 2022-2023 had been completed and submitted to the Internal Audit Unit of the ministry for verification.

However, more than a year later, the documents have not yet been delivered to the AuGD.

Over the 10-year period, Parliament approved $695 billion or 9.1 per cent of the National Budget, for the management and administration of the health sector by the Ministry of Health and Wellness.

Section 24(1) of the FAA Act stipulates that accounting officers should submit, to the minister and the auditor general, appropriation accounts for expenditure for each financial year within four months after the end of a financial year.

The ministry also reported last year that the delay in completing the accounts was due to challenges with the Fin-Man System Server.

Two decades-old Gleaner articles on the Ministry of Health speak to the extent to which those challenges are allowed to persist, Calder highlighted.

On March 18, 1963, The Gleaner quoted a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report that there were “adverse comments from the Auditor General on the condition of the Ministry of Health’s accounts for three successive years ending 1959: that many transactions were subject to no internal audit whatsoever, for example, expenditure during 1958-59 in respect of salaries alone, approximating £1.4 million” [J$6.6 billion today].

The second article is one published on February 11, 1978 with the headline: “No Accounts EVER from Regional Hospital Boards”. Nothing has changed, Calder added.

The accountability campaigner argued that sanctions are harshly meted out to citizens and the business community who delay or fail to comply with the country’s financial laws but several state entities, the Ministry of Health being only one example, can do the same for decades with little or no concern.

“Even when the money unaccounted for compounds to almost $700 billion in value, there remains no evidence to suggest that either the Cabinet or the Parliament of Jamaica is acting to hold anyone to account for such financial crimes or its impact on service delivery on an area as crucial as healthcare for Jamaicans,” the JAMP head contended.

Should not be business as usual

Calder has signalled that it should not be business as usual going forward.

“Since the country is looking at 10 years of successive dereliction of duty, answers must come from those the Jamaican public pays to prepare these financial reports and those we both empower and pay to act when such reports are not done,” she said.

According to Calder, answers should come from the internal auditor, financial director and the permanent secretary at the ministry as well as board chairmen and heads of agencies under the ministry such as regional health boards.

Further, the accountability watchdog said answers should also come from the Minister of Finance and the Public Service, the Minister of Health at the Cabinet level and the PAC members who have received these annual reports for 10 years.

“Such reports on their action or inaction should be sent to the prime minister and the prime minister should, via a statement in the Parliament, explain to the people of Jamaica how he will superintend the correction of such gross neglect, who he will hold to account and how.”

Calder was also asked to comment on the role of the PAC in reviewing these issues that are brought before it perennially.

She noted that the PAC is a bipartisan committee with the direct responsibility to receive and review the reports submitted by the auditor general and to ensure that the AG’s recommendations are heeded by the ministry and its agencies.

“One is tempted to ask, what is the value of a PAC if this level of negligence is allowed to continue across administrations?”

The JAMP boss pointed out that, during a meeting of the PAC on April 18, 2023 and May 2, 2023, the matter was raised by the auditor general.

“We recall the permanent secretary advising the PAC that part of the reason for the lack of reporting were technical challenges with the Government’s FinMan system,” she said.

On the request of the PAC, the Ministry of Finance investigated that claim and, in a letter dated May 1, 2023, advised that “only the Ministry of Labour and Social Security has reported that FinMan issues are causing delays in the delivery of its appropriation accounts” and “that the Government Financial Management System replaced the FINMAN in FY 2018”. Calder noted that this was in contrast to the permanent secretary’s statement.

In the absence of any definitive follow-up by the PAC, Calder told The Gleaner that JAMP wrote the PAC via its chairman, Julian Robinson, on May 28, 2024 and asked: “What steps have the PAC taken or intend to take to address this egregious and outstanding matter with the Ministry of Health and Wellness?”

However, she said JAMP is yet to receive a response from the PAC.

“These are parliamentary duty bearers who, despite the doubling of their salaries, have not been inspired to any greater commitment to protect the assets and the future of the people of Jamaica. We should not accept this as normal or irreparable,” she declared.

When quizzed about the issue last evening, Robinson told The Gleaner that the usual protocol is for the PAC to ask the auditor general to do a follow-up coming out of an audit. He said the ‘action items’ are usually tracked by the committee clerk to ascertain if they are completed.

Robinson told The Gleaner that, in his capacity as PAC chairman, he intends to write to the minister of health to ensure that the outstanding appropriation accounts are provided to the auditor general.

Calls to the permanent secretary’s number for comment were not answered.

edmond.campbell@gleanerjm.com

Ministry of Health and Wellness

Issues flagged by the Auditor General in her annual reports over several years:

1. 2015-16 Overpayment of $237,688.13 in salary and travelling. To be recovered.

2. 2017-18 Overpayment – Six employees overpaid in salary and allowances $1,190,863

3. 2017/18 Fixed Assets - $7,799,754 in value of 43 computer equipment missing.

4. 2017-18 Contracting and Procurement – No evidence of procurement process for $17.94 million and no sign that the Permanent Secretary approved these contracts.

5. 2018-19 Contracting and Procurement USD $288,900 spent on consulting services for nine months with no competitive process or advertisement.

6. 2019/2020 $867.49 million received from National Health Fund and $840.8 million from Capital A expenditure but unable to verify due to insufficient accounting records.

7. 2019/20 Bank interest not paid over to Miscellaneous Revenue - $2,141,258.73 for the financial year 2014/15

8. 2020/21 Unrecorded spending – Ministry received $366,365,138.67 as Appropriation-In-Aid (AIA) from the National Health Fund to finance several projects implemented by its regional agencies. However, only $182,442,606.37 was disclosed in the Appropriation Account, resulting in actual expenditure being understated by $183.92 million.

9. 2020/21 Unlawful Virement – $110,487,277.07 million reallocated in budget with no evidence of approval.

Information collated by JAMP