Non-emergency operations in Free State public hospitals have been postponed for two months to save money, the provincial health department said.

It announced the “cost containment measures” for 31 hospitals, clinics and administrative offices in the province.

“The financial situation of the Free State department of health is reaching dire proportions and this has forced the department to announce… cost containment measures,” said spokesperson Elke de Witt in a statement.

The measures included a “postponement of all routine non-emergency surgical cases until the end of January 2009”.

The other measures included:

– All patients that could be discharged, would be discharged, “ensuring that only those patients needing high acuity case are kept”;

– all privately-funded patients would be referred to private medical facilities;

– only emergency referrals from other medical institutions would be accepted;

– staff would be given “mandatory leave in line with reduced service levels”;

– all “non-essential meetings” and “non-critical appointments” would be cancelled.

The department said the measures might seem severe, but pointed out that the attendance of patients at clinics for non-emergencies usually declined in the run-up to Christmas.

“These measures are put in place to ensure that service delivery is reduced in clinical areas where patient numbers decrease and to allow for the reallocation of resources to areas in facilities such as the emergency care areas where the need increased due to patient load,” the department said.

De Witt said the cause of the financial problems was simple.

“We are under-funded while the burden of disease is growing.”

She said the cost containment measures would last during the holiday period. The situation was expected to return to normal mid-January.

Earlier this month, the Free State received R9.5m from the national health department to relieve a shortage of antiretroviral medication.

Deputy director-general Yogan Pillay said at the time the Free State had a shortage of ARV drugs due to budget constraints.

“The Minister of Health Barbara Hogan has directed that we engage urgently with the province to support them to respond to this challenge.”

Pillay said a team of senior officials from the national department would also work with the provincial department to find a way to resolve its financial problems.