Czech hospital audit sparks ministerial row

Photo: Filip Jandourek

A probe into how Czech hospitals handled EU funds in the last five years has sparked a row among members of the coalition government. Health Minister Svatopluk Němeček has backed complaints by hospital directors over the audit’s alleged arbitrariness and lack of transparency. But the Finance Ministry says the probe, ordered by the EU, is a standard procedure, and accuses Mr Němeček of trying to influence its results.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
The audit that is putting a strain on the cohesion of the coalition government was ordered by the European Commission last December. In June, the Finance Ministry sent its auditors to 35 hospitals around the country to check how they spent EU funds received between 2008 and 2013. The audit specifically focused on purchases of instruments and other equipment for hospital cancer and trauma wards.

The audit’s complete results have not yet been released. However on Monday the directors of several hospitals criticized the audit at a news conference. Lukáš Velev is the director of the Jihlava hospital.

“The main reason is that these audits have been focusing on finding a reason for sanctions. We had no idea about who is in charge of the process and what their qualifications are.

“Without the final report being concluded, I was already told there were going to be sanctions, and we can only discuss how high they would be. I think that is absolutely unacceptable.”

Photo: Grant Cochrane / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Several hospitals face fines of tens of millions of crowns based on the findings of the audit, according to media reports. The hospital in Hradec Králové, for instance, could end up paying 55 million crowns in penalties its management says it cannot afford.

Other directors complain that errors were found in procurement procedures that were checked and approved by the anti-monopoly agency in the past.

Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka has warned this could have a serious impact on the health care budget. But his fellow Social Democrat, Health Minister Svatopluk Němeček, was less diplomatic.

“These audits are very unusual and lead to doubts over their real purpose. Hospital directors have informed me that they are planning to take this to court and I believe they are right.

“We can’t have such arbitrary acts when someone is accused of something without being told the details. I firmly believe that the finance minister will interfere.”

Svatopluk Němeček, photo: Filip Jandourek
The Finance Ministry has meanwhile accused Mr Němeček and the hospital directors of trying to influence the results of the audit.

Finance Minister Andrej Babiš argues the procedure took place according to rules stipulated by the European Commission which should receive the final report by mid-December. He also recommended that public hospitals adopt centralized purchasing and other services common in the private sector.