Precious Matsoso, director-general of health. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Precious Matsoso, director-general of health. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

The Department of Health has asked Parliament to amend the Mental Health Care Act to allow its director-general, Precious Matsoso, to delegate responsibility for overseeing state mental patients to suitably qualified officials beneath her.

State mental patients are prisoners who have undergone a psychiatric assessment and are ordered by the courts to be placed in a state mental healthcare facility such as Weskoppies or Valkenberg. At the moment, the health director-general is directly responsible for assigning these patients to an institution in one of the provinces and reviewing their mental health status regularly.

With more than 3,000 such patients in South Africa, the administrative load was cumbersome and time-consuming and could be managed more effectively by a lower-ranking official, Ms Matsoso told MP s on Wednesday. "It is obviously an important administrative process and to avoid any delays we have requested that there be delegations," she told members of Parliament’s portfolio committee on health.

The turnaround time was about three days, she said.

Oversight of state mental patients was a national function because only some provinces have mental healthcare institutions suitable for them, she said.

State mental patients include people who have committed crimes and are found to be mentally unfit to stand trial or who had such reduced mental capacity when they committed the crime that they were unable to understand what they were doing.

Committee chairman Bevan Goqwana aid the proposed amendments were straightforward. "The sooner we help the director-general the better."

The Mental Health Care Amendment Bill was published for public comment on July 20 last year, and "no substantial comment was received", Ms Matsoso said. The Cabinet subsequently approved its submission to Parliament. The Department of Health also proposed that the act’s provisions for the establishment of hospital boards be scrapped, as these functions were provided for in the National Health Act of 2003, Ms Matsoso said.

Ralf Brummerhof, a psychiatrist at Sterkfontein Hospital, said the proposed amendments would have no effect on the day-to-day admission and care of patients.

The biggest bureaucratic problem facing state mental patients were in fact delays in reclassifying prisoners who had recovered from their mental illness. They required an order from a judge to be discharged from a psychiatric facility, but their paperwork often got held up by the National Prosecuting Authority, he said.

MP s on Wednesday voiced little objection to the amendments and asked to be briefed on the department’s overall mental health strategy at a later stage.

© BDlive 2013