Dr. Pillay: The Health Official Who Cried Wolf

 “We experience the problem that orders are placed with suppliers but suppliers only deliver part of the order or not at all.” Dr. Thamizhanban Pillay, DDG, Department of Health.

Most of us know the story of the boy who cried wolf and what finally happened to him.

When a department official charged with health regulations and compliance, and whose responsibilities include ensuring that public health facilities are adequately stocked with medicines and equipment becomes the boy who cried wolf, then we must check what kind of wolf is responsible. Most likely there is no wolf but his own shadow, the one that refuses to go away even in darkness.

Pillay, who calls himself Dr. Anban Pillay, is not your ordinary physician. Before the promotion that elevated him to his current position, he lingered in the shadows at the Department of Health. He is the untypical career civil servant.

Brought up in Mobeni Heights in Durban, he has never treated a patient. And how could he? There are no records of the son-of-Pillay ever registering with the Health Professions Councils of South Africa to practice medicine. His doctorate, we assume, could be more academic than practice.

Dr. Pillay has worked at the department since (around) 1995 (then aged 25) and rose to become the go-to-man, the Mr. Fixer at the Department. He fixes all sorts of issues, when cornered, he takes off his gloves and plays hardball.

We have experienced Pillay’s defensive tactics first-hand: when we asked the department for a supplier’s BEE Certificates used to clinch multiple contracts, the DDG was the veto-wielding official at the department’s headquarters; regardless of whom we asked about possible improprieties, Dr. Pillay would readily offer to investigate then stifle the enquiry.

Afraid of his shadow, Thamizhanban Pillay - the public servant who is crying 'WOLF!'

Back to the statement in which Pillay offered one reason for the medicines stock-outs at public health facilities, “We experience the problem that orders are placed with suppliers but suppliers only deliver part of the order or not at all.”

That, in my opinion, is a load of baloney. Pillay is the problem. Since his promotion on February 22, 2012 from Chief Director, Health Economics to his current position of Deputy Director-General, he has single-handedly undone many of the gains achieved under former minister Barbara Hogan.

When public clinics are running dry of drugs, we must be able to see the woods for the trees. When he blamed contractors in his speech, he failed to mention that these companies were vetted and approved by a unit that he heads. Those are his contractors, some of whom he hawks their produce.

For months, we have been questioning why the department prefers to deal with brokers (the middle men and women) instead of going directly to the manufacturers.

Pillay is desperately hoping that the early drug shortage warning system launched with funding from Clinton Health Access Initiative will be the magic wand that will clean up his gigantic blunders.

The country does not need some technology to warn of stock-outs, all that is needed is for officials at the headquarters to start listening to nurses, doctors and patients on the ground, and to contract suppliers who can deliver, not some friends of friends and definitely not the profiteers who have the right people on speed-dial.

When the shortages issue was first reported in early 2014, instead of nipping the problem in the bud, officials at his Unit were sending denial messages to the minister and newsrooms.

The denials and lack of information from the department continued as the crisis heightened, prompting the creation of Stop Stock-Out by a coalition of NGOs in the winter of 2014. In fact the only data available of medicines that are out of stock have been provided through crowd-sourced information by the coalition.

As of Friday (20, November 2015) none of the provincial managers could tell what drugs are out of stock, running low or have just been supplied. Some top individuals at the department do not even know who the nine provincial depot managers are.

When Pillay is not busy trying to hide his failures from the minister and the public, he takes up lobbying duties for products of certain pharmaceutical companies. His antics during the department’s presentation to the parliamentary portfolio committee on the Medical Innovation Bill did not go unnoticed. I believe the public would be interested to know why he found it necessary to punt Sativex (Nabiximols), a cannabis-based drug that is produced by British firm GW Pharmaceuticals.

The new early stockout warning system is doomed to fail unless the department fixes the existing problems in procurement.

One of the expectations from the system is for suppliers to log status reports of their respective production cycles. How would this help the public? A great percentage of those enjoying lucrative contracts with the department are middlemen and women, how would they obtain production circle information?

And even if they could, what would stop profit-motivated manufacturers from inflating prices when the system warns of a looming shortage for a particular product, after all they are not the ones with the contracts?

Do the men and women working in the procurement unit consult with state attorneys before signing contracts with suppliers? If they did, the department would be in a position to successfully claim damages from contracted suppliers who fail to deliver.

Sources at the department have told us about the use of standard templates for contracts. How does the department expect suppliers to take the terms in such simple contracts seriously?

Any contract law student would tell Dr. Pillay that a breach of contract is litigable. How much has the department collected in damages from contractors who have failed to deliver?

His ‘wolf!’ cries are therefore hollow and designed to deflect blame from his Unit. We journalists are as culpable for amplifying the fake cries because of our failure to question and interrogate. The worst thing is that whenever Dr. Pillay opens his mouth or signs off on a press statement, we all believe him.

Adjudication of submitted bids in tenders should include thorough scrutiny of bidders and their profiles, as some are known to present sexed-up profiles.

For the Deputy Director-General to openly state that the department shall now require supply commitments from bidders is an admission that his Unit has not been doing its work properly.

In our latest revelation, we report how a two-year old company, Medi-Core Technologies, landed a R776.8 million contract despite its questionable profile. When this was brought to his attention - first by his own staff and by uSpiked, Pillay decided to adopt a defensive stance.

When pregnant mothers cannot access supplements; when mothers are left to deliver their own babies; when decisions on what drugs to procure are motivated by pharmaceuticals’ sales representatives; then we are in trouble. What is required now is a total top-to-bottom cleanup at the department. It was time the minister cracked a real whip. 

Read: Blacklisted Contractor Gets R776.8m Contract