Health Minister Dr Chitalu Chilufya says government will comply with Global Fund directives to repay over $1 million that was stolen at Medical Stores Limited (MSL) in form of ARVs, among other drugs.

But Dr Chilufya says the theft of the $1 million is not “breaking news” because government has been dealing with the matter since 2016 when it received intelligence reports that commodities at MSL had been stolen.

According to an investigative report released, April 26, and titled “Investigation of Global Fund Grants to the Republic of Zambia: Theft of Health Products from Medical Stores Limited”, drugs and HIV test kits were stolen from Medical Stores between 2014 and 2016 and sold to other entities.

The investigation identified significant unexplained stock losses of Global Fund-financed pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical health products totalling US $1,064,788 delivered to MSL between 2014 and 2016.

At a press briefing, Thursday, Dr Chilufya pledged that government would
comply with Global Fund’s directives of repaying the funds to compensate for the theft of drugs at MSL.

He explained that the rules of engagement with Global Fund are that when there are unjustifiable expenses, the host country is supposed to repay the money

“Global Fund is for the globe, and there are rules that govern its use. So, whenever an audit is done and there are expenses that are not justifiable, when they are expenses that are not explainable, when there are loses I must put it, part of the rules of the game are that the host country must repay. And this is the reason why the Global Fund said they want that $1 million recovered, and government is complying with the Global Fund in ensuring that we strengthen our commodity security, in ensuring that we maintain public health, commodity supply chain, and I must say that we are firmly on track. There are many stages before a report of this nature becomes public. Like I said, we have been dealing with this matter from 2016, and there are stages and there is a time that shall come when we shall begin managing the refund. But we will pay back,” Dr Chilufya pledged.

And Dr Chilufya downplayed the expose, saying the government had already been dealing with the case since 2016, and that it could not be “breaking news” now.

“Social media has in the recent past days been awash with inflammatory stories purporting that the Ministry of Health has been discovered to have been responsible for massive thefts and losses of Global Fund supported commodities at Medical Stores Limited (MSL). This is an old story that has been very decisively dealt with proactively, both at government and institutional level. Social media that is not informed and alert has noted a recent publication of an old activity that covered the period 2014-2016 and amplified it as “breaking news”. This is simplistic rumour-mongering that reflects a lack of effort in finding out the truth,” Dr Chilufya argued.

He said government had been generating a report into what transpired and only released it a few months ago, but that the Ministry had dealt with the matter.

“In October 2016, as part of collaborative transparency with Global Fund in the management of supplies, the Government, through Ministry of Health, commissioned a surgical investigation following intelligence reports of a highly-organised crime cartel involving a few MSL employees and Congolese nationals in the diversion of public health commodities from the supply system. This information was shared with the Global Fund, which in the true spirit of partnership, availed an external, conflict of interest free and objective forensic audit covering the period 2014 to 2016 to assist quantify the risk, as well as identify the suspected losses in the supply chain system,” he narrated.

He, however, claimed that cases of mismanagement of commodities at MSL have improved by 95 per cent since the scandal erupted two years ago as the Ministry had reshuffled and fired some members of staff who were responsible for theft.

“As a result of the reforms the Ministry of Health has instituted at MSL, wastage of supplies has reduced by more than 95 per cent, and indeed, for the first time in MSL history, there is zero expiry of ARVs in 2018. I wish to clearly state that the Government investigations instituted at MSL will continue until all culprits to this crime are brought to book,” Dr Chilufya assured.

“Arising from these findings, and in the spirit of the directives Given by His Excellency the President, government swiftly made a decision and instituted disciplinary removal of the leadership and Management at MSL. Seven suspects have been apprehended, some of whom where employees of MSL. A further two Congolese nationals, have also been arrested and are appearing in the courts of law. Further, decisive action has included the following: The existing security contractor was terminated and a new one engaged; additionally, the Zambian Police Service has been deployed at all MSL warehouses in Lusaka. All high-value products are kept under stringent lock and key and retained in severely restricted areas.”

He further disclosed that a whistle-blower policy had been introduced.

“The Ministry of Health, with all its supply chain stakeholders, conduct joint-weekly cycle count activities to improve transparency and visibility of the system. Government, working through the new MSL management has developed a Whistle Blower Policy and revised the MSL Human Resource Handbook that strictly guides staff behaviour and practices. In this vein, the Zambian Public are being requested to report any unauthorised activities to the leadership at MSL and the Ministry of Health,” Dr Chilufya said.

He added that further stringent measures had been applied to beef up security of stocks.

“All new MSL trucks have a warning that states ‘this truck is carrying medicines for the people of Zambia.’ Report any suspicious activities on the this truck to MSL. Government has included the Drug Enforcement Commission, ZAMRA and police in safeguarding stewardship at MSL. A dedicated task-force to investigate corruption and theft at MSL has been established that acts on inter border diversion activities,” said Dr Chilufya.

“There will be no sacred cows in this process as we create a clean and credible MSL. I wish to call on the public to protect what is theirs by taking advantage of the Whistle Blower Policy in place to report any suspicious activities in the supply chain to relevant authorities.”

Much of the supply chain of health-related commodities is handled by Medical Stores Limited, a key public health institution responsible for equitable distribution of essential medicines to the local population.