Thai public health chief removed after row over scheme

The intense conflict over the universal healthcare scheme has finally cost Dr Narong Sahametapat his top job at the Public Health Ministry.

Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha has signed an order to transfer Narong from the post of permanent secretary of the ministry to an inactive post at the Office of the Prime Minister, pending an investigation into why the conflict erupted and put the ministry in a negative light.

The transfer has angered a large number of Narong's compatriots and friends.

Health Professionals Association chairman Sakhon Nata has vowed to mobilise 1,000 supporters to the Public Health Ministry today to protest against what they see as an unfair transfer order.

"He speaks up for us and he gets punished," Sakhon said.

Dr Prachumporn Booncharoen, president of the Thai Federation of Medical Centre and General Hospital Doctors, also attacked the transfer order.

She said that instead of launching a probe against Narong, the government would do better to investigate the National Health Security Office (NHSO).

"I can tell you the moves against Narong will cause widespread ramifications," Prachumporn said. "While we don't want to see a rally of doctors, we will in the end have to gather and fight for justice."

Public Health Minister Rajata Rajatanavin, however, yesterday said he was not worried about possible discontent from the transfer of Narong.

Narong had openly clashed with the NHSO over the management of the universal healthcare scheme in recent months.

Led by Narong, state hospitals under the ministry's supervision had stopped submitting reports on their implementation of the scheme to the NHSO. These hospitals had even threatened to stop doubling as the scheme's registrars.

Given that this scheme covers about 48 million Thais, their moves threatened to have a broad impact on the public.

Negotiations between Narong and Rajata, who chairs the NHSO board, had taken place lately but there was no satisfactory conclusion.

Rajata yesterday said he had ordered an investigation against Narong and had set up a fact-finding panel for the purpose.

He also made clear that Narong, who will retire at the end of October, would not be at the helm of the Public Health Ministry pending the probe results.

"The prime minister has already signed his transfer order," Rajata said.

An informed source said Dr Surachet Satitramai, deputy permanent secretary of the Public Health Ministry, would serve as the acting permanent secretary in the face of Narong's order.

Narong and his supporters insist that the ministry, which is mainly responsible for the implementation of the universal healthcare programme, should have a say in the management of the scheme and its funds.

They claimed the NHSO had not managed the scheme efficiently enough, as evidenced by the number of state hospitals struggling financially under the weight of the scheme.

However, several health advocates, the Rural Doctors' Society and patient networks do not agree with Narong's moves.

In a related development, the Office of the Public Sector Anti-Corruption Commission has received a complaint against the NHSO over alleged irregularities in the management of the universal healthcare programme.

The complaint alleged that the NHSO had used the scheme's funds for unlawful purposes, for example by allocating some grants to private hospitals' projects.