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Health minister, deputy speaker out

THE SHADY purchase of an overpriced computed tomography (CT) device by a financially ailing hospital has cost Smer nominee Zuzana Zvolenská the post of health minister and Renáta Zmajkovičová, a key Smer official who sat at the top of the hospital’s supervisory board, the post of parliamentary deputy speaker. Prime Minister Robert Fico called on the two officials to resign just days after the Sme daily and the private television station Markíza broke the story on the Piešťany Hospital of Alexander Winter buying a CT scanner with a price tag three times higher than similar devices in the Czech Republic.

Zuzana Zvolenská(Source: SITA)

THE SHADY purchase of an overpriced computed tomography (CT) device by a financially ailing hospital has cost Smer nominee Zuzana Zvolenská the post of health minister and Renáta Zmajkovičová, a key Smer official who sat at the top of the hospital’s supervisory board, the post of parliamentary deputy speaker. Prime Minister Robert Fico called on the two officials to resign just days after the Sme daily and the private television station Markíza broke the story on the Piešťany Hospital of Alexander Winter buying a CT scanner with a price tag three times higher than similar devices in the Czech Republic.

Opposition parties are now also calling for the head of Smer strongman, Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška, for what they call his links to the firm Medical Group SK, which won the dubious tender. Paška, who more than a decade ago sat on the board of directors of the company, denied any involvement and said he might take the claims to court.

“The process of the [public] procurement of the CT device in Piešťany raises doubts and it is not enough to react to those doubts by sacking the members of the board of directors, which has already happened,” Fico told the press on November 3, as quoted by the TASR newswire, adding that “the one who manages these people” must also leave.

Zvolenská, the third minister to quit the Fico cabinet, as well as the only female minister, will be replaced by State Secretary of the Health Ministry Viliam Čislák, who before joining the ministry worked for the network of regional hospitals Svet Zdravia owned by the financial group Penta. Zvolenská too has a working history with Penta, Sme wrote.

General Prosecutor Jaromír Čižnár has ordered criminal authorities to check the dubious purchase. Meanwhile, Sme reported on November 6 that large state-run hospitals in Martin and Trenčín also bought devices from Medical Group SK.

The CT deal

The Piešťany Hospital of Alexander Winter had announced a tender to purchase a CT Somatom Definition AS produced by Siemens in 2012 for roughly €1 million with VAT; however, after the ruling Smer party took control over the hospital, the management cancelled the deal and announced a new tender for a more expensive device, TV Markíza reported on October 30.

The Medical Group SK won the tender after facing a single competitor, the Nitra-based firm Meditecon, which offered a price €300 lower than the winner. The winning bid at almost €1.6 million for a Philips Ingenuity Core 128 CT scanner was €600,000 higher than the CT device from the cancelled tender, Sme reported.

The price is approximately three times higher than similar devices in the Czech Republic; for example, a hospital in the Czech town of Havlíčkův Brod bought a CT scanner in May 2014 for about 15 million Czech crowns, around €540,000, according to Sme.

At the time of the deal, Zmajkovičová headed the hospital’s supervisory board where she also brought along her deputy Adriana Herdová. The Health Ministry also nominated Michal Straka, a rapper performing under the nickname Ego, to this body, Sme reported.

The leadership of the hospital announced on November 6 that they are seeking ways to cancel the contract with the firm Medical Group SK, which according to the director of the hospital Mária Domčeková, has not yet supplied the device, the SITA newswire reported.

Heat on Paška

Fico said that along with Zvolenská, Zmajkovičová also bears a share of the responsibility and thus he requested her to step down. However, when asked about Paška’s fate in association with the CT scandal, Fico responded on November 4 that the speaker of parliament should use all available legal means to sue opposition politician Daniel Lipšic, calling the claims of opposition ‘nonsense’.

Lišpic, of the NOVA party, claims that the case is linked to Paška and that “the minister, just as every health minister in the Fico government, was Paška’s person”, Sme wrote.

“I have nothing in common with the mentioned firm,” Paška said, as quoted by SITA on November 4, adding that he ended his activities there as a minority shareholder 13 years ago.

According to Paška, the opposition is motivated by the November 15 local elections. A day later he announced he does not plan to resign, but rather to file a lawsuit over what he called libel and false accusations. However, Paška did not respond to the questions regarding whether he has been in contact with the people who currently represent the Medical Group SK, TASR reported.

Opposition calls for inquiry

The opposition parties, the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) and Most-Híd, are calling for a thorough inquiry into the CT deal and also all the state orders that went to the company Medical Group SK.

“It is not excluded that the firm Medical Group SK was proposed by someone from Smer for all the hospitals which run under the Ministry of Health,” said former health minister Ivan Uhliarik, a deputy of the KDH.

Viliam Novotný of the SDKÚ suggests that Fico, by calling on the minister to resign, might have wanted to “get rid of this scandal very fast” because there must be something much larger in question: “wasting and embezzling money in the health care sector”.

Who is Zvolenská?

Zvolenská recalled all members of the managing board of the hospital nominated by the Health Ministry, arguing that they have not informed her properly about the proceedings in this hospital. She has also filed a complaint with the Supreme Audit Office (NKÚ) and the Public Procurement Office (ÚVO) to check whether the tender was in line with the rules.

“Therefore currently, I can’t say whether the chosen approach was correct or not,” Zvolenská said, as quoted by TASR. “What I can say is that Health Ministry nominees in the Piešťany Hospital board of directors have not properly informed me about goings on in this hospital.”

Zvolenská is not a Smer member and she was nominated for the ministerial post as an expert from outside. Her nomination provoked discussions among the public about her past, since she previously worked for both the state-controlled health insurer Všeobecná Zdravotná Poisťovňa (VšZP) and the private health insurer Dôvera, which is owned by the Penta financial group. According to Sme, she was considered to have links with Penta, as well as with the alleged Smer sponsor Juraj Široký.

At the very beginning of her ministerial career, she had to deal with a scandal that involved Dôvera and Penta. When she was still part of the Dôvera board, she signed an account closing with a reserve of €400 million, which allowed the owners of the insurance company to have their shares paid even if the government again banned profits for health insurers, as the first Fico government did. The owners of Dôvera are still receiving profits paid from this reserve, an income that is not subjected to taxes, Sme wrote. Fico defended Zvolenská at that time.

When Fico’s current government took power in 2012, the creation of a single, state-controlled, health insurer was a priority. Two years on, the project has not moved forward and it is questionable as to whether the government will go ahead with it before the end of this election term in 2016. Zvolenská became the face of this plan; she has defended it after the plan hit a raw nerve with the two private health insurers operating on the Slovak market. In February 2014 Zvolenská said the project was ready, but it will not progress until the funding is secured.

During her two-year-long ministerial career Zvolenská faced one opposition attempt to oust her from her post. In October 2013 the opposition criticised her over completing a tender process for licenses for helicopter emergency services in Bratislava and Trenčín late, leaving a five-day window where there were no such services. The life of a woman, who died in a car accident in the Bratislava Region during this period, could have been saved if rescue helicopters had been able to attend to her, the opposition alleged.

Another major issue, the debts of hospitals, remains unresolved. State-owned hospitals remain heavily indebted as Zvolenská leaves her post. The debts amount to over €300 million, out of which about €100 million are obligations towards the state-run social insurer, Sme wrote.

Who is Zmajkovičová?

Zmajkovičová claims that as a chairwoman of the hospital supervisory board she was not entering the decision making process. She also said that through the post of deputy speaker she does not have any links with her role in the Piešťany hospital.

“I know that such a political culture is not common in Slovakia,” Zmajkovičová said when explaining her resignation shortly after Fico called on her to resign, as quoted by SITA, “but I am not after job titles.”

Zmajkovičová is one of the leading personalities of the Smer party in Trnava Region. She has been linked to the local tycoon Vladimír Poór, originally an alleged sponsor of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) party under Vladimír Mečiar, who is now believed to be one of the sponsors of Fico’s Smer, according to a profile published by Sme.

Zmajkovičová had not made it into any high public administration posts until recently, when, after Smer’s sweeping election victory in 2012, she became deputy chairwoman of the parliament. In 2009, Zmajkovičová faced accusations of plagiarism after the Pravda daily published information that in her master’s degree thesis she copied several paragraphs from the law without marking them as citations. Zmajkovičová received her law degree from Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica in 2007, when she was already involved in politics. At that point, she was serving as the head of the mandate and immunity committee in the parliament. Zmajkovičová denied the accusations of plagiarism and called it a technical error.

Michaela Terenzani contributed to this story

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