Tue | Jun 18, 2019

Martin Henry | Teflon Tufton – minister number one

Published:Sunday | May 12, 2019 | 12:20 AM
TUFTON

How the public make up their minds about these things we never get to know, but in the most recent RJRGLEANER Communications Group polls, conducted by pollster Don Anderson, Christopher Tufton was adjudged the best-performing Cabinet minister. Tufton, minister of health, had a 24 per cent rating as best-performing minister, more than twice the nearest two others at 11 per cent.

The health sector doesn’t generate jobs and more jobs, it doesn’t run major infrastructural development pride projects, it doesn’t spend a lot of feel-good money, and the majority of citizens do not directly interact with it on a day-to-day basis unless they get sick. So it has to be something else why Dr Tufton is outpacing his Cabinet colleagues in the popularity race.

The health sector has not been exactly short of its own big, bad news. The news story reporting Dr Tufton’s lead started out by saying, “Despite facing strong criticism for his handling of the issues at the Cornwall Regional Hospital and the [2018] dengue outbreak ... Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton has topped the list of best-performing Cabinet ministers.”

There’s a lot of pain involved in interacting with the public-health system: The long waiting periods, the absence of some services, the shortage of drugs and beds and staff. The pain has been aggravated by one of the worst policy decisions a previous Government made: the removal of user fees. A study out of the University of Technology (UTech) has mapped the negative impact of the removal of user fees on service delivery and found that users were generally favourably disposed to paying something if that would improve the quality of service.

Dr Tufton, a research-driven Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CaPRI) man, would have known this, but as a politician and Cabinet minister, would have subscribed to collective responsibility.

WELL-OILED PR MACHINE

In the troubles of health, the soft-spoken Chris Tufton comes across smoothly as an honest, caring, and engaged minister in search of solutions. His ‘Ease the Pain’ initiative was launched to improve the human dimensions of service delivery even when the material aspects can’t be fixed. And his quiet, well-oiled PR machine should not be scoffed at. It has served the minister well, providing a Teflon cover.

A visibly leaner and fitter minister has led his flagship Jamaica Moves initiative from the front and turns up everywhere for 5Ks. Jamaica Moves has become a household name. Tufton has taken on the non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the leading causes of death in the country.

Armed with data and research support, he has bucked the industry and taken on head-on sugar-sweetened beverages, particularly in the school system. And while the gun salutes have been going up for freeing up the weed by other sectors of the same Government, the minister of health has been consistently warning, again with strong data support, about the harm, particularly to the development of the young, done by ganja smoking.

Timed around his contribution to the Sectoral Debate, a number of initiatives for the improvement of what media like to call the “ailing” public health sector, have been unveiled. ‘Pain Relief – Gov’t to pump millions into outsourcing surgeries, tests to reduce hospital wait times’ was The Gleaner’s lead story last Tuesday morning, hours ahead of the minister’s presentation in Parliament. Although the programme won’t kick in until September. I told you about that PR machine!

“The Government,” the story said, “plans to roll out a multimillion-dollar spend to clear the backlog of public-sector patients languishing from the wait for diagnostic tests and non-emergency surgeries by outsourcing healthcare t o private practitioners , free of charge to the public.”

The minister spent a chunk of his contribution to the Sectoral Debate labouring the point of the patients’ suffering and the unaffordability of private healthcare for the majority of Jamaicans. All from the sufferers’ perspective, of course. A minister who seems genuinely to feel the pain of those he serves.

Tufton told Parliament, “People die waiting. Frankly speaking, long waiting times also make a farce of free healthcare and the concept of universal access to healthcare. We have to intervene and fix it!”

Then on Thursday, CaPRI, for which Dr Tufton was once co-director, hosted a public forum, ‘Beyond No User Fees’ to National Health Insurance for All’. The invitation said: “In 2018, the Minister of Health convened a steering committee to provide recommendations on how an NHIP could be financed and delivered. Their work is now done . .. .”

I am one of only about 20 per cent of Jamaicans who have health insurance. The minister is leading a charge to get everybody covered using creative financing strategies. A Green Paper for public discussion proposing a compulsory national health insurance plan that would offer equal benefits for contributors, regardless of income, was tabled during the minister’s Sectoral Debate contribution.

Among the revenue sources the Ministry of Health has proposed are taxes on sugar and cannabis to raise billions to supplement healthcare costs.

The minister has rolled out a $30 billion five-year plan to “fix our old and decrepit health infrastructure” as part of a bigger 10-year strategic plan to transform the health sector. At $6 billion a year, that’s really not a lot of money for the fix. But the problem of neglect and the rundown condition of the plants is honestly recognised, and a feasible fix by chipping away at it is being proposed right down to a list of institutions and amount allocated.

PICKING WINNERS

Tufton has picked star trauma surgeon and retired principal of the University of the West Indies, Mona, Professor Archibald McDonald to lead the plan for the outsourcing of services to private providers to slash wait times. Prof McDonald is already leading the work for the rehabilitation of the Cornwall Regional Hospital, Tufton’s biggest headache.

And he has picked retired public servant par excellence Dr Wesley Hughes to lead the consultations on the National Health Insurance Plan.

From this distance, this minister seems to pick winners to get things done and to trust his technocrats to carry the ball. Cutting the pretense of god-like knowledge, Tufton can calmly tell his thorn in the flesh in Parliament, Dr Dayton Campbell, “I am not a medical doctor, but I have been advised ...”

I have previously praised Tufton as visibly the most research-oriented, data-driven minister. He turned up at the professorial lecture of Prof Felix Akinladejo at UTech last month – a lecture on using computer technology in a ‘techno-therapy intervention’ to aid recovery from strokes – to tell the audience that more local applied research is needed, and research for development should be rewarded in academia, just like publishing in top journals.

That might have been pure talk from having to say something appropriate and ministerially grand for the occasion, but Tufton’s ministry is the only one I am aware of that that has offered graduate scholarship grants for researching problems in the portfolio area. We have been asking for this approach to funding immediately applicable research for a long time.

Perhaps the biggest announcement made in his contribution to the Sectoral Debate last Tuesday was the rebranding of the ministry as the Ministry of Health and Wellness. The rebranding comes with a $50 million Research for Wellness Fund “to support this health and wellness agenda, we are going to support research and development in the priority areas. We will be driven by the science, not by anecdotes,” Tufton told Parliament.

“We want to continue to track the science towards pursuing progressive, evidence-based policies. This money will fund applied research, based on competitive proposals and in line with identified challenges to be addressed. We encourage the academic community and research institutes to partner with us to keep on the cutting edge of evidence-informed solutions to public-health challenges.”

Teflon Tufton is presiding over a ‘limping” health system, with a lot of sufferation in it and which is not going to suddenly and miraculously get better. But the minister understands, and honestly acknowledges the problems, projects a sense of genuinely caring, and in business-like fashion, is chipping away at the problems with data-driven, technocrat-inspired and managed, workable solutions. His poll ranking as minister number one may not be undeserved.

 

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com