GOMA’s Double Games
Daily News Editorial
The duplicitous nature of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) was once again exposed when Deputy Minister Ranjan Ramanayake revealed with proof that GMOA President Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya was all set to offer private channeling services at a leading private hospital in spite of a GMOA-led strike over the SAITM issue. When the news went viral on social media, with a picture of the relevant receipt, the doctor had apparently cancelled his appointments at all private hospitals.
Although this is the first time they have been “caught in the act” as it were, it is common knowledge that doctors who strike during day time have no qualms about engaging in private practice or channeling consultations in the afternoon. On this occasion, a GMOA spokesman categorically stated that their members would not offer channeling consultations in private hospitals on strike day. It seems that the GMOA President himself has violated this directive. If he wanted to cancel the appointments, he should have informed the booking sites and hospitals the previous day. The fact this has not been done shows there was a willingness to work in a private capacity while the strike was going on.
Only the poor patients who cannot afford to go to private dispensaries or private hospitals suffer when the doctors strike. The rich and even the middle class can patronize private hospitals and the extremely rich can go to Singapore, but no such options are available to poor patients especially in remote areas. They depend on rural Government hospitals to which they sometimes have to walk for several kilometres through jungle treks. How does it feel to be told that doctors are not in, when you have walked a good few miles to obtain treatment for an ailment?
A consensus is growing rapidly in society that the Government should take stern action against doctors who hold patients’ lives to ransom in this manner. It is time that doctors stopped thinking of themselves as demi gods who are above the law. Many people who commented on social media sites expressed the view that the medical profession must be recognized as a category that cannot engage in strikes, given its crucial importance, on much the same lines as the Police and the Armed Forces.
Today, the GMOA-led doctors are used to resorting to strike action at the drop of a hat. They agitated for duty free cars and the Government restored that facility. Next they wanted to enroll their children to leading schools in Colombo, regardless of their station of work. This was shot down by Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam. Now they are harping on the SAITM issue, having kept mum when it was started during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure.
It is rather ironic that the GMOA members who oppose a private medical institution do not see anything wrong with working at private hospitals. They will have a more credible case if they oppose all private medical institutions, not just SAITM. Since the GMOA fears the “lack of quality standards” at SAITM, are they 100% satisfied about the facilities in private hospitals? Besides, what is the assurance about quality standards of private medical schools in our region, which the GMOA does not oppose? Hundreds of Sri Lankan students study at these universities which charge very high fees that drain our foreign exchange reserves.
As President Maithripala Sirisena said at a public meeting recently, the solution suggested by the GMOA and many other trade unions (a government takeover of SAITM) is rather easy, but the long-term implications are far more serious. No investor will want to invest in the educational sector here and possibly even in other sectors if that happens. Indeed, we saw a similar effect with the Expropriation Act passed sometime back. Yes, a solution that balances the interests of everyone – patients, doctors, State university students and SAITM students – is needed to the SAITM issue, but it cannot be an ad-hoc solution that creates even more problems. All stakeholders have to acknowledge that private higher education is here to stay, locally and globally, and a viable solution has to be evolved based on that presumption. Such a solution cannot be rushed.
In the meantime, strikes won’t take the GMOA anywhere. By all accounts, Friday’s strike seriously affected only the health sector which is the GMOA’s home turf. But there was no enthusiasm at all about the SAITM issue in other sectors such as education and transport (both public and private) which had normal services. If the GMOA had an iota of public support at the beginning of their anti-SAITM campaign, that seems to have evaporated now. The expose of the channeling appointment will make it worse.
Government doctors must bear in mind that the people paid for their education. Given that the rich in this country mostly evade income taxes, it is basically the poor who had footed this bill through indirect taxes. Doctors thus have a duty to serve the people, especially the downtrodden who come to Government hospitals. Doctors must not shirk this onerous responsibility.