Foreign medical trips for public officeholders
The awkward trend of public officeholders getting foreign medical services at public expense is self-serving, immoral and condemnable. It is, therefore, heartwarming that the House of Representatives is walking on the path of justice to undo the exploitative pastime of a privileged few. But beyond sanctions for violators, the House should, by extension, push for an effective and efficient health system in the country.
Against the backdrop of dwindling foreign reserves and biting economic realities, the lower chamber of the National Assembly again pushed to curb foreign medical trips by government officials. The worry is that such medical tourism has gone reckless and the privilege abused at the expense of the State and its scarce resources. A conservative estimate puts medical tourism at an average of $2.5 billion (N1.04 trillion) a year. To push back on the prodigal spending, Reps is walking the ropes of an Act that prescribes a jail term of seven years and/or a fine of N500 million for officials who spend public funds on foreign medical trips. The bill has graciously passed the second reading. The Sergius Ogun-proposed legislation is not the first to attempt an amendment to the National Health Act 2014, to raise a reasonable barrier against foreign medical trips, which is thriving at the expense of creating such services at home. It is, perhaps, the first time a serious effort is dissipated at discouraging violation of the rules, and that is commendable.
Regrettably, over the years the rapid decline of medical facilities and services has continued to force Nigerians to seek life-saving treatment abroad. The brain drain that began in 1985 has consistently robbed the country of practicing physicians and specialists to cater for its 200 million people. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) has it that for any country to claim to have enough doctors for its population, it should have one doctor for every 600 persons. It, therefore, means that Nigeria needs about 300,000 medical doctors, but has less than 35,000 working in the country currently. Yet, it is sad to note that these few working medical officials do not have a conducive environment. Of course, the consequence of this is grave with several avoidable deaths and medical errors recorded routinely. These morgues, pretending to be hospitals, have caused the country so much in capital flight, as patients lack confidence in the sector.
As a matter of fact, the right to medical care, whenever and wherever, is sacrosanct. The public service rule also empowers public officials and their families to travel abroad for medical treatment. As a rule, once the scale of charges determined by the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) is right, the permanent secretary will make his recommendations to the head of the service of the federation for treatment abroad. Perhaps, to curb the abuse of these privileges, President Muhammadu Buhari sometime in April 2016 said, the federal government would not provide funds for any government official to travel abroad for medical treatment unless the case cannot be handled in Nigeria.
He said: “While this administration will not deny anyone of his or her fundamental human rights, we will certainly not encourage expending our hard-earned resources on any government official seeking medical care abroad when such can be handled in Nigeria.”
But the abuse of privilege has continued to be the national albatross. A number of public officeholders consistently continued to fly overseas for common ailments that cost the national purse a fortune. Even the President, who is due for medical vacation in London, has not shown a good example for the rest of the public officeholders. As of August 2021, Buhari has spent 201 days receiving medical care in London since he assumed leadership in 2015. He is not known to have visited any Nigerian hospital in the last seven years. But, Buhari has stayed long enough in power not to have at least one hospital that has the right equipment and specialities to attend to his medical peculiarities that keep taking him abroad at public expense. An absconding President, who only gets his ailment treated in foreign hospitals, by foreign doctors, and observes vacation overseas is an insult to national pride and a compromise to national security. Such is uncharacteristic of remarkable leadership.
With the President and co. freely junketing wards of foreign hospitals, why should anyone bother about the decrepit status of public local hospitals where the poor masses are dying in droves? It is such immorality of wicked self-centredness that the new bill is pushing to arrest. What is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. Nigerians too deserve to have first-class hospital services at home that are manned by happy Nigerian doctors. Yet, it is a constitutional and moral responsibility that the current administration owes to the people. We expect the House of Reps to see the bill through. Then, it would no longer be business as usual, since even the privileged officeholders will need and push for an effective and efficient healthcare system that works for all in Nigeria. The Nigerian public can as well count on the lawmakers to demand better funding of quality and affordable healthcare that meets the needs of all – irrespective of status. That is the path of fairness and justice. The lawmakers can do no wrong in this matter.