Amidst intense lobbying for top Health Secretary slot
Nihal Jayathilake out,
Sudharma Karunaratne in?


By Suresh Perera

The abrupt move to transfer Dr. Nihal Jayathilake, the incumbent Health Secretary, in an "out of the blue development", last week triggered intense lobbying and pulling a few strings by aspirants vying for this top administrative position in the government health sector.

With mounting speculation of Jayathilake’s unexpected exit, many clamored to throw

their hats into the ring, but in separating the wheat from the chaff, the contenders who did merit consideration, if at all, were Dr. Palitha Mahipala, Director-General of Health Services and Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva, Additional Secretary and Western Provincial Director of Health, two frontline medical administrators in the country, senior health officials said.

However, deviating from the regular practice of appointing a medical doctor to the Health Secretary slot, the government has opted for a senior Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) officer to head this critically important Ministry, they noted.

There is speculation that in terms of a decision reached by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in consultation with Health Minister, Maithripala Sirisena, the Secretary to the Plantations Ministry, Mrs. Sudharma Karunaratne, will succeed Jayathilake as the new Health Secretary, the officials asserted.

Described as a "seasoned campaigner" in the administrative sphere, she has earlier served as Director General (DG) of Customs and DG of the Department of Management Services, National Budget under the Finance and Planning Ministry during a career spanning 30 plus years.

A Bachelor of Arts (specializing in Geography) graduate, Karunaratne holds a Masters in Public Administration from Canada. She was shortlisted as the ideal choice given her long experience and proven administrative skills, they said.

Unlike in years gone by when Dr. Athula Kahanda Liyanage and Dr. Ravindra Ruberu and the immediate predecessor, Dr. Nihal Jayathilake served as Health Secretaries, the preference now seems to be for a non-medical person, the officials noted.

Karunaratne’s appointment could be a stop-gap solution until the house is put in order in the backdrop of Minister Sirisena’s repeated lament that the "Health Ministry is reeking with corruption", the officials suggested.

"There are indications that a senior administrator from the medical sphere will be asked to shoulder the task at the appropriate time".

Asked about her proposed new appointment as Health Secretary, Karunaratne said yesterday that she was aware of speculation, but there has been no official intimation yet.

Health officials expressed the belief that the letter of appointment had still not been forthcoming because she was expected to fly to Singapore to attend a rubber-related conference last night and would be out of the country for a week.

Jayathilake, the incumbent Health Secretary, also left for Geneva on Friday night as part of a delegation accompanying Minister Sirisena for a key global health conference in Switzerland.

Asked for her reaction on the prospect of heading a Ministry plagued by allegations of widespread corruption, Karunaratne replied, "In my career, I have always taken up challenges –- something I look forward to. I have served as an honest, disciplined and fearless SLAS officer and have been above board in my functions".

Officials insisted that the President, who is scheduled to leave for China this week, had already signed Karunaratne’s letter of appointment and the changes are expected to happen after his return to the country.

Some changes in a few other Ministries are also on the cards, they asserted, but it was not immediately clear to what extent heads would roll. Jayathilake could be asked to take over the Plantation Industries Ministry or perhaps moved elsewhere in keeping with his seniority.

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