COMMENT | Mike Ssegawa | When President Museveni was launching the National Medical Stores (NMS) pharmaceutical warehouse in Kajjansi, off Entebbe road, in November 2022, he made a statement on drug theft which should have woken us all up.
The President said drugs bought by Ugandan taxpayers were on sale in the DRC and South Sudan open markets. These drugs are stolen by people known to many of us, he stated. How is it that we don’t report the people in this racket?
Amidst tight budgets, the government has consistently offered the health sector a big vote out of every budget for as long as I can remember. And there are results you can see including CT scans in every regional referral hospitals following the Covid-19 outbreak.
However, what has continued to disturb the government, and which the President was highlighting, is the conduct or misconduct of staff in public health facilities. Some people down the health chain have failed this good will.
Drug theft is not a new phenomenon. There used to be excuses that health officials stole drugs since they were poorly paid. Now, they are among the best paid professionals – why then aren’t they countering drug thefts in their respective places?
Technology-powered systems have been put in place, particularly by the NMS, but these can only control thefts up to the Health facility door-step. The crime syndicates still beat the current systems after deliveries.
In improved reporting tools and reporting officials, it is easy to monitor health workers, who they have seen, diagnostics taken and drug dispensed to patients.
NMS has improved its monitoring system for drugs from the stores to the government health facilities. However, the wrong people in the health centers have found a way of smuggling drugs from the health facilities.
We thank the National Drug Authority and State House Health Monitoring Unit who continue to make it difficult for Government of Uganda drugs to be sold openly in Uganda, but when criminals have the audacity to ship them out of the country, we still have a lot of work to do.
It should trouble all of us that despite the government increasing its investment in purchasing drugs, we still have patients being told to buy drugs and other common medical supplies from private pharmacies, when the drugs were delivered to their health facilities.
Drug stock outs in our health facilities should have significantly reduced since the government has in the last 10 years considerably increased its budget in procuring drugs, and moreover partners are harnessing government efforts in the health sectors. It is a fact that in 2012 the volume of medicines handled by NMS was Shs185.5 billion but as of June 2022 it was Shs2.38 trillion! The President has asked us to solve the challenge of extending government services to the Last mile. And that is what we are doing, all of us. I am happy even journalists are answering the same call.
What needs to be done?
Whoever swindles drugs from hospitals is not just unprofessional, they are thieves and enemies of the people of Uganda.
- Health workers should learn that stealing drugs is against their very own Hippocratic Oath. Without health workers of integrity, we shall continue to grapple with the problem.
- MPs need to come out with stringent laws against stealing medical supplies by amending the NDA law. It should be as dangerous to steal medical supplies just like it is to steal from military stores. Drugs are about lives. If you steal drugs, that should become a capital offense.
- We also have problems with the court system. If one is found with stolen medical supplies, judges should deny these people bail. But that should be initiated from Parliament.
- The Ministry of Health should invest in computerized healthcare systems, whereby recording is done at the health unit but reconciliation can be supervised at different locations in real time.
The Minister should be able to monitor the flow of patients and healthcare at Jinja Referral or Walukuba Health Center IV, in real time without necessarily making phone calls or site visits or seeking a report. However, these systems should be shared with ISO, CID, SH Health Monitoring Unit and other related supervisors – who can detect and take action on any officer who is responsible for breaches in the system. That’s how, every drug will be accounted for and an audit can be raised at different stages and establish the level of neglect at a click of a button.
What role should RDCs play in countering theft of government medicines?
RDCs have been fortunate to have a Minister who has sufficiently offered guidelines on monitoring government programs in their respective Districts. The Minister for the Presidency, Hon Milly Babalanda, and Hajji Yunus Kakande, the Permanent Secretary in the same ministry, offer regular memos on service delivery and have brought on board agencies to support RDCs to do this work such as the State House Anti-Corruption Unit, IGG, ISO, DPP, Manifesto Implementation Unit, among others. That is why numerous arrests have been made for civil servants who abuse office or siphon taxpayers’ funds. We however get frustrated with the court system which lets many off the hook or delays in the prosecution process.
RDCs have been at the center of identifying these problems in service delivery, and continue engaging local leaders and grass root communities on dangers of corruption including drug thefts.
I call upon the population never to keep silent when they see someone who is stealing government medical supplies.
We should all heed the President’s call to end corruption, and particularly theft of government medical supplies. An empowered population can effectively stop this vice.
RDCs in all parts of the country are under instruction from the Office of the President to reign in on these parasitic tendencies. If we get hold of these thieves, and we have proper laws to keep them behind bars for enough time, we shall make drug theft a no-go area.
Mike Ssegawa is the Deputy RCC Jinja City, Southern Division