Senior official bitter over non-medical appointment

New Health Secretary takes over despite move to ‘sabotage’ welcome ceremony


Sudharma Karunaratne

by Suresh Perera

Medical circles were abuzz with the news of an attempt by a top-rung health sector mandarin to "sabotage" the simple welcome ceremony accorded to Mrs. Sudharma Karunaratne, who assumed duties as the country’s new Health Secretary last week.

"It was a case of sour grapes", medical officials laughed. "The man, known for his lackadaisical attitude, was himself vying for this top-most administrative job in the Health Ministry".

Incensed over the appointment of a non-medical, SLAS (Sri Lanka Administrative Service) officer to this top slot, traditionally filled by a medical doctor, he had mapped out a strategy to express his displeasure by derailing the warm welcome ceremony on the cards, they charged.

It was last Monday when Karunaratne was billed to take office as the incumbent health secretary, and, while preparations were underway to greet her, as customary, senior officials, including Deputy Directors General of Health (DDGs), were taken aback when the bigwig summoned them to his room at 10 am ostensibly for a "meeting", the officials said.

Waiting under the porch in the inclement weather was a handful of senior health officials, including those from the accounts and transport division, to welcome the Secretary. It is a protocol for the hierarchy to welcome the new incumbent, but the high-ranking official concerned kept away, the officials asserted.

A DDG, a senior medical administrator, who later came downstairs to join them, remarked aloud that it was improper to line up a meeting when it was customary to receive the new head of an institution, disagreements apart. In fact, he was the only doctor amongst the group waiting outside, they said.

Karunaratne emerged around 9.55 am and waited until the auspicious time of 10.10 am to pay obeisance to Lord Buddha and officially assume duties, the medical officials noted.

After her arrival, some senior medical administrators trickled down to greet her, unbeknownst to the resentful ‘boss’ on the second floor of the building. However, on getting wind of the evolving situation, he, accompanied by a few other senior officials, had made a bee-line to the Secretary’s room creating the impression that he wanted them to report to him so that "they could all go together to greet the new incumbent".

There is a clear division within the higher echelons of the Ministry, which is detrimental to the interests of the patients and the country at large, the medical officials said, citing this incident as a case in point.

It was an open secret that the former Health Secretary and the Director-General of Health Services did not see eye-to-eye and many an unpleasant situation had arisen as a result, they asserted. "When senior administrators are at loggerheads, it is the system that suffers".

Karunaratne had earlier given instructions that there should be no tamashas to welcome her as she believed that government servants should be at work, instead of spending valuable time on welcome ceremonies.She wanted to meet and interact with her team of senior officials as "they have to work together in harmony".

Meanwhile, at the send-off accorded to the former Secretary, a director of a key government health sector institution said that he has known Dr. Nihal Jayathilake for 30 years and, unlike certain other senior administrators, he wouldn’t be offended if he was not addressed "Sir".

This shows his humility and magnanimity, he continued. "Unfortunately, there are some others whose inflated egos must be massaged by ‘sirs’ around the clock".

Karunaratne, who had earlier served as Director-General of Customs and Secretary, Ministry of Plantation Industries, is viewed as a brook-no-nonsense, tough administrator.

Shortly after assuming duties, she directed that three senior medical administrator transfers held up for months be implemented immediately. Accordingly, Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva, Western Provincial Director/Additional Secretary, assumes duties on Monday as Director, Cosmetics Drugs and Devices Regulatory Authority (CDDRA) and the incumbent, Dr. Hemantha Beneragama, takes over as Director, Family Health Bureau (FHB).

The FHB’s Director, Dr. Deepthi Perera, has been named Western Provincial Director.

The Government Medical Officers Forum (GMOF) yesterday congratulated the new Health Secretary for giving effect these long delayed annual transfers.

It said that vested interests blocked the implementation of these transfers during the time of the former Health Secretary as certain officials connived to remain in their plum positions for reasons well known.

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