Medical aid boss appeals to Ramaphosa: Let the private sector vaccinate South Africa

 ·1 Jul 2021

Craig Comrie, chief executive of medical aid Profmed, is calling for greater private sector involvement in the country’s vaccination rollout.

This follows a similar call from Shoprite chief executive Pieter Engelbrecht this week, who said that the group was ready to roll out its own private vaccine plan for its 140,000 workers.

The centrally controlled process where the government is the sole procurer, distributor and price setter of the vaccines, simply isn’t working and everyone knows it, Comrie said.

“The low level of private sector engagement has only opened doors to fund the government-controlled programme. But we can deliver so much more value for the nation if we were only let in.”

Comrie said that the private sector can start by creating shorter turnaround times in distribution and having more vaccination points.

“It is essential to have all over 60s vaccinated first but we need more education on vaccines and fewer restrictions or obstacles such as EVDS registration only requirements,” he said.

“Walk-ins for this age group should be welcomed and vaccine stock shortages will quickly give us an idea of where people prefer receiving vaccines and then we can adapt.”

Comrie said that the government has issued instructions to private vaccine sites to not service uncovered people with fear for the fees and funding required for the administration costs. These amount to R80.50, which the government would be required to fund.

This has even affected how the stock is allocated, where the majority of stock is allocated to public sector vaccine sites, he said.

“There is an understanding that funding is a problem – however, this can be overcome if non-medical scheme persons are offered the option to pay the R80.50 out of their pocket, or if they are unable to pay then they can obtain the vaccine from a public facility at no cost. This would alleviate state-run vaccine sites.”

Not a true partner

Comrie said that if private healthcare was treated as a true partner, the procurement process and distribution mechanisms could have been sped up and enhanced over time.

“And if it didn’t go to plan, we would have at least been able to share accountability as a unified force.”

“The bottom line is that we simply cannot afford to leave it where it is if we want to speed up progress and reach population immunity in time to save people and the economy.”

With the process being effectively four months behind the targeted vaccine rates this is costing lives daily, he said.

“It’s shameful that out of an estimated 5.5 million over-60s we have only vaccinated around 30% of these.”

When asked what he would do if he ran the government vaccination rollout from the beginning, Comrie prescribed the following retrospective list of actions:

  • Broaden private sector and public participation: the 300,000 vaccines per day target will only be reached with true partnerships where vaccines stocks track demand;
  • There is no need to control every aspect of the programme – but rather play a coordinating role;
  • Create funding mechanisms with tax incentives like the Solidarity Fund to fund vaccines, not just PPE;
  • Get support from the private sector to mitigate the risk of using a dominant vaccine producer and supplier (split AstraZeneca/JnJ/Pfizer/ Moderna). Many private sector players would have avoided conflict with existing government procurement and can still approach Moderna and others while correlating this with government approval;
  • The EVDS system creates an unneeded obstacle for many citizens who will never understand and be able to access any digital platform. Comrie would therefore have allowed walk-ins who can register on EVDS at the same time instead of the cumbersome SMS process which has not allowed sufficient time for the person to make travel arrangements to the vaccine sites.
  • Allow those who can, to register on EVDS regardless of age. This would allow for stock distribution planning. Age can always be verified by identity documents at the vaccine sites which would then prioritise over-60s or soon over-50s. Promoting registration regardless of age can be a comprehensive plan to get everyone on board at the start.
  • Comrie said he would have offered greater flexibility for walk-ins in public and private facilities: allowing people to choose their vaccine site in private if they are willing to cover the admin fee when not on a medical scheme.
  • All communications would have been transparent from all corners of the rollout from the government to medical schemes to the vaccine producers themselves.

“Obviously this is all retrospective, and it doesn’t help our situation to speculate on what should have happened,” said Comrie. “However, I do believe though that every item on my list is actionable now and can be implemented into the current programme.

“But this can only happen if our government would move out of its own way and join hands with the entire South African health system, both private and public, so we can make this vaccination rollout work. We are already effectively fighting the fourth and fifth waves of infection.”

Read: A message to Ramaphosa from South Africa’s biggest private employer

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