Liberia: Health Minister Says LRA Takeover of COVID Testing Revenue Would Adversely Impact the Fight against the Pandemic

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Minister Jallah says the covid-19 testing fee being collected cannot be captured in the country’s National Budget because it is temporary.

MONROVIA – The Minister of Health Dr. Wilhelmina Jallah has justified that fund being collected by the Government of Liberia (GOL) for COVID-19 testing at the Roberts International Airport and other areas, are not intended to directly support the country’s National Budget.

A December 2020 protocol issued by the Liberian government, through the Ministry of Health, compels all travelers to pay the amount of US$75 as COVID-19 testing fee.

The ministry justified that the fee will be used to support the costs associated with the COVID-19 outbreak response, especially testing, case investigation, contact tracing, and data management.

The protocol released exempted all arriving diplomats and their families and Honorary Consuls from testing.

“The exempt status does not apply to Liberian diplomats without foreign assignment. In lieu of testing, all exempt incoming travelers must present a negative COVID-19 test result upon arrival at the airport in Liberia. The result must be from an accredited lab and must have been conducted within 96 hours of arrival in Liberia. Children under five years of age are exempt from all COVID-19 testing”.

But since the release of the protocol, there have been mounting concerns over the actual usage of the funds collected at the Roberts International Airport (RIA) and other entry points in the country.

Liberians and other foreign nationals continue to express dismay that despite the millions of United States dollars being generated from COVID-19 testing, almost all of the public health facilities or centers across Liberia still lack access to medicines and other essential medical equipment needed to provide adequate healthcare delivery to citizens and others.

But Minister Jallah justified that the covid-19 testing fee being collected cannot be captured in the country’s National Budget because it is “temporary”.

She made these comments in an exclusive interview with FrontPageAfrica in Kakata, Margibi County shortly after the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) donated a consignment of medical supplies and equipment to the Kakata Health Center in Margibi County on Thursday, February 17.

According to her, the COVID-19 testing funds are being used to run “COVID-19 services effectively and efficiently”

“We cannot contribute that (money) to the budget because this money is temporary money and it has its own responsibility. In order for you to run COVID-19 services effectively and efficiently, we need money. So, if the services are able to provide its own money, most of the monies will go to the continuous running of the services otherwise you wouldn’t be able to maintain RIA, the treatment and testing centers and all of the medical people that are participating in keeping those services going”.

Constrained to work with LRA

Despite the justification provided by Minister Jallah, it appears that the government, through the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA) has raised eyebrows over the several thousands of United States dollars being generated by the Ministry of Health for COVID-19 testing.

The LRA generates lawful revenues for the Liberian government and its citizens.

She pointed out that authorities of the Health Ministry are currently working along with the LRA to “contribute to the general revenue by putting some of the money there as we maintain the services”.

She predicted that rapid COVID-19 services currently ongoing in Liberia would be greatly affected, if the funds being collected for testing are used to support the country’s national budget.

“The money overall has its own purpose. So, if you take it away from that purpose, that whole thing goes down. This is one of the things that’s keeping it up-revolving drugs in terms of what is being collected. It’s keeping the services running; if you take it away, services will go down”.

At the brief ceremony, authorities of the Kakata Health Center expressed serious concern over the ineffectiveness of its ambulance service at the facility due to the lack of fuel.

The USAID also repaired and ensured the full functioning of four ambulances at the facility. It provided fuel allowance for a six-month period.

But the center’s authorities expressed concerns that the ambulances would return to its pre-status if nothing is done to guarantee the provision of fuel on a regular basis.

No free ambulance service

Minister Jallah justified previous comments she made calling on citizens to pay for ambulance services being ran by the government.

Following her pronouncement, authorities at various public health centers across Liberia shunned citizens who relatives or loved ones are in critical conditions and needed to be transported in an ambulance due to the lack of money.

Minister Jallah recalled that though her previous comments did not sound pleasant in the ears of members of the public in Liberia, nowhere in the world ambulance service is free of charge.

“It’s always a concern (fuel shortage for ambulances). I remember at one time we said when people go and call the ambulance, they should sacrifice and pay small fee so that the ambulance can keep running; but we had so much backlash against that idea. But nowhere in the world is ambulance service free-you have to pay for it. That money that people paid helps to maintain and provide fuel for the ambulance”.

She expressed the hope that the government will find “another solution” to keep the ambulances at the Kakata Health Center functioning following the climax of the six months USAID’s fuel subsidy.

Limited budget

At the brief ceremony marking the turning over of the medical supplies and equipment, authorities of the Kakata Health Center again appealed to the USAID to see reason to shoulder the repair cost of US$2500 for the only generator at the facility to guarantee full and uninterrupted surgical operations.

But Minister Jallah blamed limited national budgetary allotment in the midst of competing priorities for the lack of fuel for ambulances and others at public health facilities across the country.

She stressed the need for the locals to intervene to address some of the problems at public health facilities.

“The total country’s budget is small and there are lots of competing priorities and there are lots of (health) facilities that need generator. So, if the citizens can put together and contribute-then whatever the government has will be added to make sure that the generator is provided”.

Safeguarding assets

When quizzed what assurance or guarantee can be made to safeguard the USAID donation, Minister Jallah denied reports that some medicines and other equipment donated by international partners to public health facilities are taken away by some of its authorities.

In Liberia, many of those heading public hospitals or centers across the country either have their own private hospitals, clinics or pharmacies in their respective communities or elsewhere.

Citizens and others have attributed the consistent shortage of drugs at public hospitals and centers as a result of this.

Minister Jallah claimed that most often, some of the equipment donated at government-owned health facilities are damaged and taken away without the consent of others.

This, she maintained, has sent out a wrong signal and created speculations.

“I think some of the equipment breaks down, but I am sure this team will keep an eye on all of the (USAID) equipment. First of all, we have an asset’s registry that keeps account of all the assets that the Government of Liberia own in this place and we will go back periodically to check and make sure they are there”.

“But sometimes, the equipment gets old and damaged; maybe they do not inform us before they remove it. But we will take more care in removing broken and destroyed equipment so that people are not getting the wrong impression that somebody is taking it away”.

Efforts

Speaking further, Minister Jallah claimed that the government has been applying efforts to provide efficient and effective healthcare delivery to its citizens, especially those in Margibi County following the unfortunate situation at the C. H. Rennie Hospital in Kakata.

It can be recalled that the C. H. Rennie Hospital, which is the only referral hospital in Margibi, was gutted by fire on August 15, 2021.

Though there was no human casualty reported, the fire destroyed the hospital’s Operation, Records and Emergency Rooms, among others.

The cause of the fire was attributed to electrical shock.

Following the incident, the Kakata Health Center became the newest referral hospital in the county, prompting the influx of patients at the facility on a daily basis.

Minister Jallah recalled that as part of efforts to mitigate the situation, the government renovated and extended the Kakata Health Center for the intake of more patients.

She emphasized that the gesture from the USAID will make a “big difference in terms of comprehensive health services”.

“The US and the USAID are one of our staunch partners and so we really appreciate the equipment and operating supplies that they provided to us. It makes a big difference in terms of the little money that we had to renovate this unit”.

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