Patients foot bills as staff smuggle medicines out of gov’t hospitals

GULU– While there is a shortage of medicines in public hospitals and health centres in Northern Uganda, some of their staff and private practitioners are partly responsible for causing the shortage.

This is happening notwithstanding the rising cases of diseases. For instance, the rise in malaria cases in the region has created a high demand for anti-malarial drugs in most of the public health centres, making able patients to buy stolen government drugs from private clinics and pharmacies.

At least 394,217 patients in Acholi Sub-region were diagnosed with malaria from October 2021 to the second week of August 2022. 136 of these patients died, according to regional health reports.

Lamwo district registered the highest cases with 60,224 patients, followed by Agago with 55,841 cases, Omoro district registered 47,039 cases, Pader 52,232, Amuru 46,139, Kitgum 44,219, Gulu district 31,651, Nwoya 30,929 and Gulu City which recorded the least cases with 25,625 patients.

Recently the National Drug Authority [NDA] recovered drugs worth billions of shillings stolen from government hospitals in Northern Uganda. This is after the agency investigated private pharmacies and drug shops there.

In Kitgum district, Akfrank Medicines Drug Shop belonging to Robert Akena, a pharmacist at Kitgum General Hospital, was found with drugs and equipment worth Shs 1.6 billion stolen from the hospital.

The items recovered by NDA and security agencies include anti-malaria drugs, malaria test kits, injectable antibiotics, painkillers, and medical equipment like oxygen converters, heart monitors, microscopes, portable autoclaves, and theatre accessories.

Police also arrested Kenneth Watmon a laboratory technician at Kitgum General Hospital, James Kene Rubanga, and Odong Christopher Langoya attendants at Akfrank Medicines Drug Shop. The suspects are being held at Kitgum and Gulu central police stations.

The criminal invagination file No. CRB 824/2022 was opened. Suspects were charged with unlawful possession of classified drugs which contravenes section 27 [2] of the national drug policy and authority act; Unlawful possession of government stores contrary to section 316 of the Penal Code Act.

Other charges placed against the suspects are; carrying on a business of a pharmacist without license contrary to section 14 [3] of the NDA Act; abuse of office under the Anti-corruption Act; and causing financial loss under the Anti-corruption Act.

NDA public relations manager, Abiaz Rwamwiri disclosed in an interview with the Cooperator Akena the owner of Akfrank Medicines Drug Shop could have fled to DR Congo or South Sudan.

He said the drugs seized from Akena’s drug shop had been stolen from Kitgum General Hospital and that some were to be shipped to South Sudan.

“We are working with police and whenever he goes, he will still be arrested because we are in contact with Interpol in the neighboring countries,” Rwamwiri told theCooperator in an interview.

He said over 100 medical officers across the country are facing trial over illegal possession of government drugs and illegal operation of pharmacies, clinics, and drug shops.

The Kitgum Hospital Administrator, Thomas Ojok noted that they are battling a shortage of drugs, mainly anti-malarial and some of the essential medicines.

He said drugs donated by UNICEF for enhancing the treatment and management of patients have been stolen since 2019 due to weak internal control measures in the hospital’s store and pharmacy department.

The Kitgum district LCV Chairperson Christopher Obol Aruai said they have formed a committee to conduct audit queries on the drugs and other hospital supplies. The committee is expected to bring to light the losses government has incurred as its drugs find their way to private health facilities.

Obol however asked NDA to return the stolen drugs and other medical supplies to the hospital, saying most patients cannot afford to pay for the medicines in the private clinics and pharmacies.

Christine Akello, a mother of three from Buluji village in Lamiyo Sub-county, Agago district told theCooperator that she was recently asked to buy malaria drugs at Shs 70,000 to treat her child as the hospital did not have any in store.

Meanwhile, Dr. Alobo Gasthony, a gynecologist and a lecturer at Lira University was also arrested for operating a pharmacy in Lira City without proper documentation.

Rwamwiri noted that Alabo was operating his pharmacy right at the main entrance of Lira Regional Referral Hospital. He is accused of stealing government drugs for his private enterprise, denying patients, who are also taxpayers, a chance to get free treatment.

His pharmacy was found in possession of 23 boxes of the classified assorted drugs belonging to the government of Uganda amounting to over Shs 100 million. His pharmacy would receive referrals from the medical workers in the hospital.

The mushrooming of private health facilities near government hospitals, according to NDA’s Alfred Akali Ayom is a threat to the safe storage of government drugs and other medical items.

For instance, Gulu Regional Referral Hospital came into the spotlight in 2021 after its medics connived with private practitioners to close down scanning services for internal body organs like the liver and others.

The closure of internal body organ scanning services at the hospital meant that patients had to seek services from private clinics at a fee that would also benefit the medical officers in a syndicate.

Once patients were done with the tests in the private facility, they were required to return the results to the hospital’s medical staff who would then prescribe drugs to be bought from private facilities.  Unfortunately, some of the drugs were stolen from the hospital.

A survey of several private clinics and laboratories conducting liver examinations indicates that a complete blood count costs about Shs 20,000, liver scan costs between Shs25, 000-30,000, and a liver function test costs between Shs 45,000-60,000.

Some of the machines were found in good condition but were not being used. They include; the HBsAg machine used for conducting surface antigen screening tests for Hepatitis B, Semi-Automated Chemistry for liver function tests, and Haematology Analyser used for blood complete tests.

The hospital management admitted the challenges at the time describing it as ‘the money making’ game by some of the staff and promising to take action.  However, nothing has changed as patients still are referred to the private clinics and pharmacies near the hospital premises.

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