Two years on, little action on Fort Wellington opioid abuse complaint
-whistleblower law still to be operationalised
More than two years after nurse Sherlyn Marks complained about the abuse of prescription medication by a Region Five councillor, there have been no repercussions for the persons ensnared in the matter and whistleblower legislation is still to be activated despite being passed.
Stabroek News reached out recently to the Medical Council of Guyana (MCG) on the matter but has not yet received a response. In 2016, Marks had complained about the abuse of an APNU+AFC councillor in obtaining opioids from doctors at the Fort Wellington Hospital. After the case was publicly highlighted, Marks was abruptly transferred to the Bath/Experiment Health Centre, where she remains.
Meantime, when contacted on the whistleblower legislation, Attorney General (AG) Basil Williams said he was hopeful that allocations from the 2019 Budget would see the start of implementation of measures under the legislation.
“We have to get funding, have to get funding for all of them…as you would recognise from these things, the infrastructure has to be put in. The framework requires money to deal with all of those things,” Williams told Stabroek News.
Asked if he had put in proposals for monies in the 2019 Budget to cater for this, he replied in the affirmative, adding that “well hopefully,” he gets the money he needs.
In January, the National Assembly by acclamation passed the Protected Disclosures Bill in order to protect persons making specified disclosures of improper conduct, in good faith and in the public interest, from detrimental action. It was assented to by President David Granger on February 12th of this year, according to Parliament records.
Many persons have argued that the APNU+AFC government has made it easier for persons to openly speak out against abuse of the system as compared to the previous PPP/C administration, and has lauded them for the passage and assenting to the Whistleblowers law.
But, in relation to Marks’ case, more than two years after, little has been done. A formal complaint was made last year by PPP/C Member of Parliament Harry Gill against Dr Stephen Cheefoon, Dr Ivelaw Sinclair and Dr Adrian Van Nooten, who are all attached to the Fort Wellington Public Hospital, in West Coast Berbice. Dr Cheefoon is also the Regional Health Officer of Region Five.
Letters were written by the MCG to the doctors named in the complaint while several persons were questioned and the Fort Wellington Hospital’s log book was scrutinised by the MCG in relation to prescription narcotics to see “the frequency of how the drugs were prescribed and administered.”
Gill charged that the doctors facilitated former Region Five councillor Carol Joseph, who was accused of abusing her authority to access large amounts of prescription pain medication.
Thus far, neither the Ministry of Public Health nor the Ministry of Communities has launched any investigation into the case.
Joseph resigned from the Regional Democratic Council on April 21st last year, two days after Stabroek News published a report on her alleged abuse of medication.
The matter had been drawn to the public’s notice by Gill after Marks reported to him that her complaints to senior medical officials about the Joseph case had been ignored.
Marks was abruptly transferred by Region Five Regional Executive Officer Ovid Morrison after the news item on Joseph’s case appeared in this newspaper. Morrison’s transfer of the nurse has been condemned and there have been calls for it to be rescinded. The Ministry of Public Health subsequently said that Marks had breached public service rules and that it had sent her to the Department of the Public Service for action.
Marks’ transfer was never recalled and today she remains at the Bath/Experiment Health Centre. She told Stabroek News that since the transfer she has not been met with any hostility and is comfortable at the location she was moved to and is “doing okay.”
‘Window Dressing’ While Gill is hoping for the swift implementation of the whistleblowing legislation so that others who want to be like Marks would feel safe knowing they have legal protection, he believes that government does not want this. “This Whistleblowers Act, like most of the Acts passed by this administration, seems only to be for window dressing. They have no intention of acting on it, because if they do, then they would have to condemn the actions of Ovid Morrison and Minister Lawrence, who did nothing to protect this nurse who reached out (to) them. She was trying to get help for Carol Joseph and was punished,” he said.
“There are others who would like to come out, I know. I am afraid that if the legislation is acted upon, a lot of senior ministers of government would find themselves in hot water because some of their own functionaries are guilty of perpetrating these acts of wrongdoings and abuse of office,” he added.
And as pertains to the three doctors, the complaints were looked at by the MCG and one had to undergo supervisory practice and remedial studies while the other two have to await the pronouncements of the MCG’s Disciplinary Committee.
It is unclear if decisions on their cases have been reached as the MCG has not responded to Stabroek News’ inquiries.
However, back in July of this year, Head of the MCG, Dr Navindranauth Rambarran had said that the investigation centred particularly on the conduct of the doctors in their treatment of Joseph from 2009 to when the complaint was lodged, and whether there was any impropriety in prescribing pain medications during the period of management, as initially reported by Marks.
The Chairman said that he wanted to underscore that the MCG’s regulatory role in investigating this case covers only the practice of the medical practitioners. “Even though reports from others, including Ms Carol Joseph and Nurse Marks, were taken into account, it is not within the remit of the Council to form opinions or make recommendations at any point in the investigation regarding these individuals as they are not medical practitioners,” Dr Rambarran said.
He had earlier explained that the sending of the findings to the Disciplinary Committee “does not necessarily mean that anyone is guilty, it is just the procedure that we take, according the Medical Practitioners Act.”
No one from government has ever commented on her case.
‘Regional Treaty’ But in September, the AG assured whistleblowers that their complaints will still be heard and acted on while the Act awaits implementation. “They can blow the whistle. There should be normal protection under the law and anyone who wants to blow the whistle, feel free to come forward and blow the whistle,” Williams said.
He stressed that full implementation would require millions of dollar and the funding is currently unavailable. “As you know, having read them, a lot of structures have to be erected and a lot of people put in place… It goes hand-in-glove with witness protection and you have to move people around under witness protection and a lot of them could actually be moved out of Guyana to different places. So, it is something that is being looked at… these matters would require the attention of the Minister of Finance and the availability of financing,” he said.
Noting that the legislation “must be activated” given its importance in fighting corruption, Williams, however, stressed that money is not exactly “in a backyard where you just go and pick it off a tree.”
He said government has had to find billions of dollars to offset bailouts and heavy court judgments. He added that the government still has one such court judgment, which is “like a budget itself,” to pay off. The AG stressed that as soon as money is available, the Protected Disclosures Bill and the others would be fully implemented. “As you know, we
were told on the 4th July that we are very rich,” he said in reference to the discovery of oil and implying the money necessary for the full implementation of certain pieces of legislation will be secured.
Williams said that to the best of his knowledge, no one has made use of the whistleblower legislation. He reiterated that persons with disclosures are free to contact him.
The AG wants the public to know that Guyana is signatory to a treaty that could see them relocated to sister Caricom countries, if need be. He explained, “We have a regional treaty; depending on how safe or unsafe, you can turn to another country. Guyana might be big and you might say you cool in some area and you go to Port Kaituma. But then, somebody sees you and they recognise you and say ‘Eh is wuh happening Basil?’ Then somebody goes on Facebook and says ‘you know I see Basil in Port Kaituma’.”
He was hopeful that money will be had from the 2019 Budget. “It is something, the funding has to come in,” he said.