The C Word

In a recent post I noted that despite the large spending, healthcare remains one of the weakness points when it comes to governmental performance. I believe that the majority of citizens are not satisfied with the services they receive at Ministry of Health’s hospitals, and I think many of them are more than willing to tell you all kinds of stories from their experiences at such hospitals, from misdiagnoses to surgical errors and everything in between, the list can go endlessly.

Why do citizen have to put up with poor services in the same time when a very large part of the national budget is supposedly directed at healthcare? Whenever I compare the billions of riyals spent and the kind of services in the governmental hospitals I can only think of one word to describe what is going on here: “corruption.” Oops! Have I said that out loud? It is puzzling to me how “the C word” has become such a taboo that you can rarely find it in the local press. When the press try to point out to such thing in the government they would usually use the term “administrative reform,” a vague hollow expression that you probably never heard of before. Talk about “alkhossusiya al saudia”!

But when I talk about corruption at the government’s healthcare sector I’m not simply talking about comparing the poor services at hospitals to the large spending, but also about how things are run at MOH as I have come to learn some stories from few insiders, and they are not pleasant at all.

I have recently met with a gentleman who once worked at MOH, and he is one of the country’s top professionals in his field. The man was called to join a committee that was responsible to review offers by companies to provide tools, equipment, and services for all hospitals owned by the government. The estimated value for the contract in hand was about one billion riyals (~ US$ 266mn). The man told me he was shocked at how the competing companies were competing to give bribes, not to win the contract, I meant in order to win the contract. Actually, a representative of one of these companies had the nerve to visit the man’s office with an envelop chocked with hard cash! Needless to say the representative was kicked out right away, and after a brief time our gentleman was told that this was simply “business as usual” at MOH, and he had to live with that if he wanted to keep his new job. He could not, so he was shortly replaced. “At least I didn’t get my hands dirty,” he said.

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