Each day, more than 500 patients troop to Maragua Level Four Hospital in Murang’a County with the hope of getting free medical services, only for many to be referred to private pharmacies, laboratories and clinics.
Coincidentally, all the referrals are directed to facilities next to the hospital, with the scheme benefiting cartels that have their foundations in the hospital, some of them members of staff.
“It is interesting that private health facilities start immediately at the gates of the hospital and line up to nearby Maragua town, and their ownership and supply chains of illegally procured medicines are well known,” says Maragua resident Martin Nyoike.
“A government that sits by as the enterprise of stealing medicine meant for the poor thrives can only be one from hell.”
Investigations into the scam revealed that medicines from the hospital are blatantly stolen and sold off to private practitioners, leaving poor patients to their own devices.
An intelligence report filed to the County Security Committee indicates that the powerful cartel has the blessings of influential politicians and administrators in the county government.
The investigations were ordered after patients and members of the community complained that private practitioners in the scam are staffers of the hospital and they give commissions — said to be 20 percent of the service charge — to their colleagues for every patient they refer to them.
Maragua hospital opened in 1978 as a health centre and training facility before it became a Level Four facility in 1997.
Many residents of Murang’a and neighbouring counties rely on it owing to its reputation for performing successful minor and mid-level surgeries.
Preliminary findings in the investigations indicate that more than 60 percent of the medicines that the county government procures for the facility most likely is stolen and stock are cards corrupted, denying services to hundreds of poor people who flock to it daily.
The investigations were ignited by the theft of drugs worth Sh3 million from the hospital's stores.
The theft happened on two dates — November 27, 2021, when drugs worth Sh2.5 million were stolen after the store was broken into, and on December 13, when drugs worth Sh500,000 and packed in three cartons were stolen in a mid-morning incident with no door being broken.
Nation.Africa has seen the report filed after a six-month investigation. It shows that some senior doctors at the hospital also use the public facility and equipment to offer commercial services.
“[A complaint] from Dr (name withheld) states that there exists a cartel that uses the hospital theatre and drugs and personnel to sell surgical services and where money is sent to a woman’s number (name and number attached) and the person who acts as the cartel’s aide is Mr (name and number withheld),” the report reads.
Nation.Africa has the names and phone numbers but they cannot be published for legal reasons.
Investigators were tipped that some doctors at Maragua hospital are running the theatres as their private hospitals — using government supplies and infrastructure as their capital to provide commercial services. Women seeking specialised gynecological and maternal health services are the most favoured clients.
The report also indicates that the blood transfusion department has been “peculiarly commercialised”.
Another tip that investigators received was that several clinical officers at the hospital run private pharmacies, laboratories and clinics and they and cartel members steal medicines from the hospital.
It is not only drugs that are stolen, the report says, but also hygiene materials like soaps, detergents and bleaches that find their way to the area’s black market.
“There is also a known cartel that specialises in selling off drugs that are used to effect abortions as well as benzodiazepines used to treat mental disorders but [are] abused as intoxicating substances popular with the youths,” the report reads.
The investigations, which targeted 12 staffers working in the pharmacy, administration, security and casual work departments, revealed that supply and dispensation stock cards were not properly filled out and it was difficult to ascertain the drug trail.
In December, when the second heist happened, the then county Police Commander Donatha Kiplagat and the then County Criminal Investigations Officer Daniel Kandie led a security committee in a visit to the hospital and ordered a full-scale investigation into the theft that had elicited a public outcry. The two officers have since been transferred.
The hospital’s drug store is near a public road. It emerged that because the hospital does not have a fence nor security cameras, motor vehicles and motorcycles were used to collect the stolen commodities.
Following the investigations, two pharmaceutical technologists at the hospital were arrested and charged, said Murang'a South sub-county Police Commander Alexander Shikondi.
"Caroline Wacera and James Kiarie Mwangi have since been arrested and charged on suspicions of being part of the cartel that steals medicine from the facility," he said.
The two, he added, were released on Sh50,000 pretrial bonds and their cases are making their way through the courts.
He said the ongoing investigations aim to rid the hospital of the thieving cartel.
“We are still pursuing the other suspects … We are waiting for scene forensic results from DCI headquarters as well as other information from mobile telephony and financial institutions to help us get a clear picture on contacting and money trails in the saga,” he said.
The police boss said covert investigations are underway to identify the connection between hospital workers who run private clinics, pharmacies and laboratories and the medicine thefts.
"The overall security arrangement of the hospital is very poor and anything can be stolen and sneaked out through the many exit routes around the hospital,” he said.
“We have been informed that even staff uniforms and hospital beddings get stolen on a daily basis and patients sneak out without paying their bills.”
The hospital was also noted to have weak administration structures, with politics preventing the hiring of a medical superintendent.
While all the seven governor aspirants in the county have promised to address the issue of drug thefts and poor services at public hospitals, debate on the issue has been hottest among Senate hopefuls, as the House is supposed to provide oversight on governors’ spending of public funds.
Mr Joe Nyutu, a United Democratic Alliance Senate aspirant, says “it is immoral to steal medicines meant for the poor sick and once I assume office, my first task will be to demand a probe into the workings of our public health facilities”.
He said that “anyone who can steal medicine [meant] for the sick can easily also murder people hence why all those suspected, arrested and charged should be severely punished upon conviction”.
The Jubilee aspirant for the same seat is Mr Kembi Gitura, who was replaced on April 28, 2021 as the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa) board chairman following a public outcry about how the agency managed spending on Covid-19 supplies. Mr Gitura has said he is innocent.
Others eyeing the same seat are Ms Hellen Kigia (Farmers Party), Ms Munoru Mwangi (Kanu) and Mr Pius Kinuthia (ODM).
They all committed themselves to addressing the Maragua hospital issue as an urgent matter.
“I will demand that the restructuring of the health sector be done within the first 100 days in office,” Ms Kigia said.