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Concerns over moving psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni to ill equipped NGOs were ignored, former health official tells inquest


By Zintle Mahlati Time of article publishedSep 10, 2021

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Johannesburg – A former department of health official has detailed how psychiatric patients had to be moved from dysfunctional NGOs as deaths and neglect were becoming evident following their move from Life Esidimeni.

Former deputy director of clinical services in Gauteng Dr Richard Lebethe also conceded that concerns about moving psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni were ignored by senior officials.

Lebethe was testifying at the Life Esidimeni inquest.

The inquest is being heard virtually by the High Court in Pretoria.

He was questioned on his role in the department of health when it took the decision to move psychiatric patients to various NGO facilities in 2016.

A total of 144 patients died months later.

The inquest is attempting to probe who should be held liable for the deaths.

Lebethe said he first heard about the health department project to centralise mental health in 2014.

He added that he hardly attended meetings linked to the project as he had other duties to attend to.

The former official said he became involved later once deaths were being reported.

He explained his visit was to an NGO, Precious Angels, in Pretoria which had housed psychiatric patients.

The facility, according to him, had been badly run and patients were found too frail and not taken care of.

He visited the facility with former Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu.

A decision was then taken to quickly move patients from Precious Angels to state-run hospitals.

Lebethe was also questioned on whether he knew of concerns raised by department of health officials.

The concerns included that some mental care users were not ready to be transferred to hospitals and that some NGOs were unprepared to accommodate patients.

The inquest also heard that family members of the patients were unhappy with the move but they were convinced by officials that it would work.

He also admitted that these concerns were ignored by health department officials.

Advocate Harry van Bergen, representing Life Esidimeni, asked Lebethe whether he agreed that psychiatric patients were better looked after at Life Esidimeni because of the staff and round the clock medical care.

Lebethe agreed that NGOs would not be as well equipped as Life Esidimeni.

Lebethe also detailed that when he arrived at Precious Angels to conduct an inspection after eight people had died, they found the NGO was not spacious and there was no food and patients were sick.

Former Life Esidimeni Group managing director Morgan Mkhatshwa testified last week that the group had requested to inspect NGOs prior to the move. But those pleas were also allegedly ignored by the department of health in Gauteng.

The inquest resumes on Friday.