The sacking of the president and four members nominated to the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) by the previous government has triggered an uproar, with medical professionals slamming Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi’s move as “completely flawed” and “an attempt to undermine the autonomy and independence of the apex regulatory body”.
Expressing consternation over his sudden dismissal as the president of the statutory body, eminent Specialist Consultant Paediatrician, Prof. Harendra de Silva, said he was contemplating legal action against his removal by the Minister.
“I will be challenging my dismissal in the Court of Appeal”, he said.
In terms of the Medical Ordinance, there is no provision to remove the president or any of the four council members nominated by the serving Health Minister of the time, he asserted.
“Before I was informed of my termination, some Health Ministry officials urged me to resign, but I declined to do so”, Dr. de Silva told The Sunday Island.
Pressure was also exerted on the other four members of the council to step down, he noted. “However, we collectively stood our ground and refused to throw in the towel”.
“It was after I dismissed the overtures calling for my resignation that a letter indicating that I have been removed as SLMC president was sent across”, he further said.
Prof. Narada Warnasuriya and Dr. Pushpika Ubesiri, two of the other council members who were dismissed, said that they will also be seeking legal redress over their removal in “contravention of the Medical Ordinance”.
Apart from them, the other two ‘Minister’s nominees’, as they are called, who were given the marching orders were Dr. Upul Gunasekara and Dr. Sunil Ratnapriya. However, there was still no word on the four new nominees of the Minister.
Under the Medical Ordinance, the serving Health Minister can name the president and four nominees to the 25-member council. Apart from the Minister’s nominees, the other members are drawn on the basis of one each (generally the Dean) from Faculties of Medicine, and other diverse medical spheres. The Director-General of Health Services is an ex-officio member.
The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has four elected representatives in the council – Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya, Dr. Naveen de Zoysa, Dr. Nalinda Herath and Dr. Harris Pathirage. However, Dr. Pathirage has since resigned from the council citing personal reasons, GMOA Assistant Secretary, Dr. Chandana Dharmaratne said.
The SLMC election was on the cards but had to be put off indefinitely due to the worsening Covid-19 pandemic.
Though the Health Minister claimed that the dismissal of the SLMC president and the four nominated council members was based on the findings of the five-member committee appointed by her, that’s not the factual position, said Dr. L. A. Ranasinghe, president of the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS).
“Contrary to the Minister’s assertion in her letter to the SLMC president, personal communications we had with some of the committee members (Dr. Hemantha Perera and Dr. Anula Wijesundara) indicated that they had not singled out any member or the president in their report as responsible person/s for the deficiencies of the SLMC. Neither did they recommended the removal of anyone from the council”, he noted.
According to the committee members, the whole council is responsible for their decisions and actions and not individual members (similar to collective responsibility of Cabinet decisions), he explained.
As far as we know, there is no legal provision for the Minister to remove the SLMC president or any member according to his/her wishes without following the regulations stipulated in the Medical Ordinance, Dr. Ranasinghe remarked.
The process the Health Minister followed is completely flawed and purely based on the agenda of a trade union. This has created a very bad precedent that could be “the first step towards undermining the autonomy and independence of the SLMC”, which is tasked with the regulation of Sri Lanka’s medical profession, the AMS chief further said.
The SLMC is facing a crisis never witnessed in its recent history, he continued, while urging the Health Minister to reverse her decision immediately to avoid unnecessary turbulence in the field of medicine in this hour of dire need.
The five-member committee Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi appointed in September 2020 to “look into the activities of the SLMC” comprised Specialist Prof. Hemantha Perera, former Dean of the Ragama Medical Faculty, Specialist Prof. Prashantha Wijesinghe, Specialist Dr. Anula Wijesundera, Specialist Dr. Maithri Chandraratne and Specialist Dr. Dharshana Sirisena.
The Minister said at the time that the SLMC is an independent body established by a charter and its primary function is to maintain a quality medical service by protecting the rights of patients. The institution protects the quality of medical education and regulates physicians.
Under Section 15 of the Medical Ordinance, the president/council member is deemed to have vacated his post in the event of death, resignation, declared insolvent or bankrupt by a competent court, found guilty by a court of law, cancellation of medical registration, non-attendance of three consecutive board meetings or being away from the country for a period of one year or more, medical officials said.
“Whatever the reasons adduced, the crux of the matter here is that the present regime was not comfortable with a president and council that was appointed by former Health Minister, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne under the UNP administration”, they claimed.
“The reality of the situation was that the incumbent Health Minister buckled under pressure from the GMOA to sack the SLMC president and the four nominated members”,
With the appointment of Prof. Vajira H. W. Dissanayake, the Dean of Colombo Medical Faculty, as the new SLMC president, the GMOA welcomed what it called the “restoration of the independence and dignity” of the statutory body.
GMOA Secretary, Dr. Senal Fernando charged that that former Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne interfered with the functions of the SLMC by appointing his henchmen to the council, which resulted in more than one thousand individuals, who failed all three subjects at the Advanced Level examination, being registered as doctors.
He further accused the SLMC of undermining medical education by striking out three recognized Russian universities from the list of foreign universities recognized by Sri Lanka. These higher seats of learning included the world-renowned Patrice Lumumba University, which admit Sri Lankan students for medical degrees.
Expressing dismay over the developments, the Government Medical Officers’ Forum (GMOF) said that never in Sri Lanka’s history has a Health Minister of a government elected to power interfered with the SLMC in this manner by dismissing the nominees of the previous Minister.
Over the years, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Maithripala Sirisena and Rajitha Senaratne, as Health Ministers, respected the independence of the SLMC and the appointments made to it by their predecessors, says GMOF president, Dr. Rukshan Bellana.
They are trying to politicize the SLMC, he charged. “The incumbent Health Minister is giving into the dictates of the GMOA and lost her sense of direction as a result”.
President of the Public Service United Nurses Union, Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, said the Health Minister has no right to meddle with the SLMC, which is an independent regulatory body.
Members to the SLMC are nominated to the SLMC for a five-year term by an incumbent Health Minister and dismissing them before they complete their tenure violates the Medical Ordinance, the prelate noted.
He said that health services in the country have plunged to a new low so much so it is more apt to describe the Health Ministry as “Unhealthy Ministry”.
The mess in the health sector could have been prevented if there was at least a secretary with a backbone in charge of the ministry, he asserted.
The Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) was established in 1998 as a statutory body. It replaced the former Ceylon Medical Council formed in 1924.