GAPS IN CARE: Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu has been blamed for failing to ensure the patients were placed in appropriate care. Picture: SOWETAN
GAPS IN CARE: Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu has been blamed for failing to ensure the patients were placed in appropriate care. Picture: SOWETAN

THE family of one of the 36 psychiatric patients who died after being transferred from the Life Healthcare Esidimeni Centre said it intended taking legal action against the Gauteng government.

Virginia Machpelah suffered from Alzheimer’s and was one of the patients moved from the centre at the end of June to a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) called Cullinan Care Centre.

The family said it had been left in the dark over what happened to her.

Her sister, Christine Nxumalo, said she got a call from another NGO called Precious Angels telling her that Machpelah had died after six weeks in their care.

She did not know how her sister had ended up at Precious Angels after the family was informed that Nxumalo was moved to Cullinan.

"My sister got so much better when she was there [at Life Esidimeni], we didn’t worry."

She said it was "horrid" when the department decided to move the patients out of Life Healthcare.

"There was no interaction, it was as if they were [just] telling us what was happening," Nxumalo said.

The families had pleaded with the health department to renegotiate the contract with Life Esidimeni.

Nxumalo said when she went into the private mortuary to identify her sister’s body she found out that there were six other patients who had also died after being moved from Life Esidimeni two months before.

The national Department of Health has since ordered the Office of the Health Ombudsman to investigate the deaths of the patients.

"I can’t sit around and wait for the department to act on our behalf. From the moment I get the answers, I will take legal action," she said.

Nxumalo said neither the provincial department nor Gauteng health MEC Qedani Mahlangu had visited her family since her sister’s death. They had sent only an e-mail of condolences.

"I said to them, ‘you can keep your condolences, they are not coming from a good place’," she said, calling the e-mail dismissive.

South African Depression and Anxiety Group operations manager Cassey Chambers said on Thursday that neither the organisation nor the families it had been in touch with knew which NGOs the patients had been sent to.

Chambers said the organisation found itself helpless when it was called for answers by family members who wanted to find out whether their loved ones were in any of the NGOs where the deceased patients had been cared for.

Life Esidimeni spokesman Dr Nilesh Patel said the Gauteng department terminated the contract with the centre after years of service, citing financial constraints and the need to reintegrate the mentally ill patients into society.

"The termination of the contract was not due in any way to a breakdown in our relationship," he said.

DA Gauteng health spokesman Jack Bloom said the department should have put more effort into negotiating for a contract it could afford. "The whole thing was terribly handled."

Bloom did not believe that reintegrating the patients into communities was feasible because some posed a danger to residents.

He has also called for Mahlangu to resign from her position, saying she was accountable for the deaths.

"The ultimate blame falls on MEC Mahlangu, who failed to take sufficient steps to ensure the orderly transfer of patients to reputable NGOs. She should resign or be fired by Premier David Makhura," said Bloom.

Apart from saying it was waiting for the conclusion of the investigation on Wednesday, the Gauteng health department had not responded to questions at the time of publication.