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Senate queries Aso villa over medical bills abroad

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• Lawmakers asks officials to ensure President uses official clinic • NMA opposes restriction, says choice is personal

The Senate has expressed worry over the rising cost of President Muhammadu Buhari’s medical trips abroad. To stop the trend, the upper chamber directed relevant officials to ensure State House Clinic was in good form for Presidency’s medical needs.

The red chamber, which made its position known, yesterday, described as completely unacceptable the situation where the medical facility located in the Aso Rock Presidential Villa had been abandoned by the Presidency because of preference for treatment in foreign countries.It said the foreign trips for medical treatment must be stopped to ensure proper attention to the State House Clinic.

The Senate stated its position, yesterday, at a budget defence session attended by the Senate Committee on Federal Character and Intergovernmental Affairs and the State House Permanent Secretary, Tijani Umar.

Umar had presented a budget of N19.7 billion for 2021, out of which N1.3 billion was proposed for the State House Clinic. Reacting to the proposal, the Chairman of the Senate panel, Senator Danjuma Lah, said the committee would approve the budget for the State House Clinic but insisted that the President and other top officials of his government should no longer be flown abroad for medical treatment.

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The committee stated: “The President cannot be travelling or be taken out of the country anytime he falls sick. He must be attended to in our hospitals here in Nigeria. We must ensure our hospitals are fully equipped to world class standards so that no matter the issue of emergency, our hospitals should be endowed with that capacity to attend to them before flying out, if the need arises.”

STATE House Clinic became an embarrassment to the country when the wife of President, Aisha and daughter, Zahra, painted a gloomy picture of the bad shape of the clinic, which they alleged lacked paracetamol and even syringe.

Again, despite the N13.59 billion budgetary provision for the State House Clinic in five years under President Muhammadu Buhari, the facility was ‘unfit’ to treat his Chief of Staff, Abba Kyari.

The State House Clinic is meant to treat the president, the vice president, their families and other staff of the presidency. Kyari, who tested positive for the COVID-19 after a trip to Germany, allegedly shunned the State House Clinic. Speaking with journalists after the session, Umar said the Presidency was committed to reviving the State House Clinic.

“What we have on ground now is something we can use to stabilise the State House Clinic and this is what we have achieved: Stability in the supply of consumables and stable electricity, stability in motivating our doctors and all our medical professionals, stability in infrastructure renovation, upgrade and maintenance of the facility and our equipment.

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“What we can do with the resources right now is to maintain and try to hold on to what we have until the new budget comes on stream and this is why we appealed to the committee to intervene and assist us with the construction of the Presidential wing of the State House Clinic, which is of national strategic importance to all of us.”

A total amount of N3.5 billion was approved in the 2020 budget to take care of medical trips as well as travels and food. This is more than double what was spent in 2019.

The amount spent in 2019 was N1.4 billion.
BUT doctors under the aegis of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), who said far more resources are needed, faulted move by the Senate to restrain the President from foreign medical trips. NMA President, Prof. Innocent Ujah, told The Guardian yesterday that though the proposed budget for the State House Clinic would help to upgrade facilities, the money would not translate to optimal medical care.

“It cannot be equated. The money is not really translated into activity. There are so many things you have to put in place before you can say Mr. President should not travel abroad for medical care. I don’t think it is sensible to say Mr. President should be restrained from foreign trips for medical treatment.

He said the proposed budget would be better appreciated if broken down to various uses it would be put into, adding that the amount to be released determines what would be achieved.

“How much of the money released is very critical. When I was the Director General of the Nigerian Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) Yaba, Lagos, not up to 45 per cent of the approved budgets for the institution were released,” he stated.

Also, the immediate past Chief Medical Director (CMD) of Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) Idi-Araba, who is consultant, public health physician/epidemiologist and a member of Lagos State COVID-19 Response Team, Prof. Akin Osibogun, told The Guardian: that in an ideal situation, the choice of which doctor to see or from which hospital to receive treatment should be a personal choice.

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“Any patient should be free to decide on his or her choice of physician. What can be argued is who should be responsible for the cost of that treatment. For employees, this is best captured under the terms of engagement or employment. So, it is important to check what the rules say.”

A public health physician and Executive Secretary of Enugu State Agency for the Control of AIDS (ENSACA), Dr. Chinedu Idoko, told The Guardian: “It is more or less a moral question. If health facilities available to the common masses are properly and equitably sited, equipped with material, human and otherwise resources and functioning with maximal efficiency, it may then not appear so glaringly cruel that the top echelon could at will embark on foreign medical trips for conditions that our indigenous medical personnel could so skillfully handle.”

He said there was nothing wrong with the State House having a state-of-the-art clinic to attend to the first family but stated that there shouldn’t be too much gap between the first family and other Nigerians.

“What it means is that there is need for rehabilitation, upgrade and building of life into various primary, secondary and tertiary facilities spread all over the country. A conscious effort with involvement of the necessary stakeholders and machinery to this purpose should be mobilised and sustained for the necessary output, outcome and impact,” he said.

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