A bill seeking to prescribe a jail term of seven years and/or a fine of N500m for officials who spend public funds on foreign medical trips narrowly passed second reading at the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
Sponsored by Sergius Ogun (PDP, Edo), the proposed legislation is titled, ‘A Bill for an Act to amend the National Health Act, 2014; and for related matters’.
Leading the debate on the bill, Ogun noted that the objective of the proposed law was to amend the Act “so as to make provision for sanctions against any public officer, who violates the provisions of the Act, especially Section 46 of the Act”.
The section reads, “Without prejudice to the right of any Nigerian to seek medical check-up, investigation or treatment anywhere within and outside Nigeria, no public officer of the government of the federation or any part thereof shall be sponsored for medical check-up, investigation or treatment abroad at public expense, except in exceptional cases on the recommendation and referral by the medical board and which recommendation and referral shall be duly approved by the minister or commissioner of Health of the state as the case may be”.
Ogun said, “This bill, which seeks to amend the National Health Act, is borne out of a desire to discourage medical treatment abroad at the detriment of our indigenous health institutions. The need to revamp the poor state of the health care sector in Nigeria, among other things, is the reason for introducing this bill.
“It is no news that Nigeria’s health care system is in a deplorable state and needs urgent attention. There is paucity of infrastructure, dearth of medical personnel, poor standards and many other challenges that need to be addressed. The intent of this bill is to spur public officers to pay more attention to our health care sector and take drastic steps to develop and improve on the sector.”
The lawmaker urged members of the House to look at the merits of the bill and let it pass “in the interest of our nation, which is currently going through trying times and requires drastic steps to bring it back on its footing”.
Ogun listed the merits of the bill to include reduction of the exodus of doctors from Nigeria to other countries.
“If this House passes this bill into law, it will curtail the excessive medical trips of public officers abroad and direct their attention to fixing the poor state of the country’s health sector. This will in turn lead to the development of the health sector and improved remuneration for medical doctors, thus attracting Nigerian doctors abroad to come back home,” he stated.
The lawmaker also noted that the bill, when passed into law, would demonstrate the government’s commitment to the welfare of citizens, “in the sense that funds, which were hitherto expended on foreign medical trips, will be redirected into building an efficient and effective health care system in the country. This will in turn positively impact the lives and wellbeing of the people”.
Ogun also cited reduction of capital flight abroad, saying, “This bill, as stressed above, will stop the export of cash abroad and redirect the same to the development of our economy.
“All of this cash, which flies abroad in the disguise of one medical trip or the other, will be retained here in our country and be used to develop our nation.”
While Ogun was making his presentation, the Deputy Speaker, Ahmed Wase, interjected him, asking if the lawmaker was sure of what he was saying.
Responding, Ogun noted that the Act prohibited unapproved spending of government funds on foreign medical services, but it failed to prescribe punishment for disobeying the law.
“I read the Act and the gazette is here. I was not in this Assembly then. It is an Act; it is a law of the land today. What I am basically doing…, my amendment is saying that there should be punishment for flouting that Act, which the Act did not capture. It could be (due to) an oversight,” he stated.
The lawmaker, therefore, proposed insertion of Clause 2(2) to read, “Any public officer of the government of the federation or any part thereof, who violates the provision of sub-section (1) above shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a fine of N500,000,000 or to an imprisonment term of seven years, or both”.
The proposed punishment, however, generated murmurs in the chamber.