From: Alice Taylor
PPP by Stealth: US Company Eyeing Balkan Healthcare PPP Held US Government ‘Hostage’ during COVID-19 Pandemic

Steward Healthcare, the company set to engage in a corrupt PPP in Albania, Montenegro, and possibly North Macedonia required a state bailout in the US.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the US, Easton Hospital in Pennsylvania which is run by Steward Healthcare said it would close its doors unless the state coughed up some $40 million. 

Giving the US government a three-day deadline, they said that unless they paid, “Easton Hospital will no longer be able to serve the community’s healthcare needs and will be forced to close.” 

Steward is owned by $43 billion New York Investment firm, Cerberus Capital Management. Co-Chief executive of Cerberus, Stephen Feinberg is a Trump election donor and was appointed to lead the President’s intelligence advisory board.

Local state officials have accused Steward of “keeping the state hostage”.

Along with their financial troubles in Pennsylvania, the company also faced complaints in Massachusetts from lawmakers and a nurses union. They reduced services for intensive care units and closed two smaller private equity-owned hospitals in the last year.

But it is not only the US where Steward are having significant problems. In Malta, Steward bought a PPP worth billions, for just EUR 1 from a company called Vitals Global Healthcare. This concession would grant them the right to run three state hospitals for a period of 99 years. Vitals had previously run the deal into the ground, absorbing millions of taxpayers money, running up huge debts, and failing to deliver on a single contractual agreement. Following the sale, it was revealed that the same secret investors were involved in both Steward and Vitals, meaning they got rich off the sale and the purchase of the concession. Meanwhile, Maltese taxpayers lost out to the tune of hundreds of millions.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Steward run hospitals sent all infected patients to state-operated hospitals. In other words, despite being paid by the taxpayers to operate hospitals, they shrugged off the burden and sent them to the already strained state facility. 

In addition to this, Steward Healthcare was reported to owe as much as EUR 15 million in Malta. The money is a result of tax and social security arrears that had been waived by disgraced ex-Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. He was forced to resign over links between him, his cabinet, and the assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

Muscat was also caught lobbying his replacement to give Steward yet more money, despite them once again, failing to deliver.

An Exit cross-border investigation discovered that while Vitals/Steward was racking up debts and making off with taxpayers money in other countries, they were pitching the governments of Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. 

With Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in charge of informally facilitating discussions between the regional leaders and investors Sri Ram Tumuluri and Shaukat Ali Ghafoor, the plan was to take over local state hospitals and areas of prime real estate on the coast.

The two investors made a number of visits to the Western Balkan countries, along with Maltese officials. In Albania, a draft law was drawn up which would facilitate PPPs in the public healthcare sector and a Memorandum of Understanding was created with Montenegro. All of this paves the way for Steward to operate in those countries. But with a track record full of unfulfilled promises and a trail of debt and state bailouts, it does not look promising for Western Balkan citizens.

In fact, the Vitals/Steward deal has raised so much suspicion in Malta that those involved in it are currently subjected to a criminal inquiry.