Credible information gathered from multiple sources within and outside the Ministry of Health indicate that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in an unpredicted move, may appoint the Deputy Minister for Health Services Dr. Bernice T. Dahn as the new Minister of Health.
Dr. Dahn, who has been serving as Chief Medical Officer (CMO), presiding over a turbulent health system despite government and donors’ resources, has not been on the radar for appointment. Some sources within the Health Ministry describe her as "unpopular with her colleagues at the Ministry and with health workers."
This newspaper had reported in early January that the President had received three nominees from health stakeholders namely Drs. Francis Kateh, Vuyu Golakai and Robert Kpoto, to replace former Minister of Health and Social Welfare, Dr. Walter T. Gwenigale. Dr. Gwenigale went into retirement last February.
Highly placed sources told our Health Correspondent that Dr. Dahn's possible appointment could come about due to persistent calls on the President by Dr. Gwenigale, who is now one of Mrs. Sirleaf's trusted advisors.
It is no secret that Dr. Dahn's reign as Deputy Health Minister for the nation's Health Services witnessed “gains” in the health sector on paper. When Ebola tested those “gains” in March 2014, everyone knows what happened and is still happening.
If she’s endorsed by the Chief Executive, our Health Correspondent was told that her appointment will not come without resistance from key policy makers and stakeholders in the health sector. A few key health policy analysts who talked to the Daily Observer indicated that Dr. Dahn has not had a smooth working relationship with the front-line health workers, evidenced by the fact that the health workers’ strike action in February 2014 was prolonged due to some “insensitive remarks” she directed at them.
Dr. Dahn had allegedly said that if striking health workers did not return to their jobs, she would recruit Sierra Leoneans and other foreign health workers to fill the gap. That statement angered the striking health workers to the point that they called for her removal as CMO.
Another drawback for Dr. Dahn is the fact that stakeholders are concerned that she failed to oversee the Ebola crisis in the country because of what one said was “her lack of leadership. As CMO, she and Dr. Gwenigale did not provide the kind of robust leadership needed to tackle the Ebola crisis head-on until the involvement of President Sirleaf. The President had to appoint her Assistant Minister, Mr. Tolbert Nyenswah, to run the Ebola Incident Management System.”
Juxtaposing all the assertions of those who spoke to this newspaper, the baggage and the negative she carries to the job outweigh the good she would bring into the position if she is appointed and confirmed by the Liberian Senate.
“If she has not been a good CMO, how can she be a good Minister of Health especially in these critical times?” one of our sources asked rhetorically.
One group that is certainly going to stamp their disapproval with the President’s appointment of Dr. Dahn will be the National Health Workers Association of Liberia (NHWAL).
Since Min. Dahn allegedly made the statement of importing health workers from neighboring countries, she and officials of NHWAL are still at daggers-drawn stance.
Legislative sources have told our Health Correspondent that Dr. Dahn does not enjoy the confidence of some of the lawmakers in the Senate Committee on Health, clouding her prospects of the Senate approving her nomination. Besides, it can be recalled that she was escorted out of the House of Representatives when she refused to answer lawmakers’ questions. Her adamant position prompted the House’s Presiding Officer to ask the Sergeant at Arms to escort her out of the Capitol.
So, if nominated by the President, it promises to be a grueling confirmation hearing for Dr. Dahn.
She was appointed CMO in 2007 following the resignation of Dr. Benson Barh after the appointment of Dr. Gwenigale as Minister of Health in 2006.
One informed source, told this paper that when Min. Gwenigale decided to retire last month, he did not consider recommending Dr. Dahn for the position. Instead, he left it with the President to nominate someone of her own choice. This is why the Liberia Dental and Medical Council (LDMC) after thorough consultation with the sector decided to recommend to the President three names from among which she could appoint a minister.
The LMDC short-listed three persons Dr. Francis Kateh, the Deputy Incident Management System (IMS) Chairman and Medical Director at the Jackson F. Doe Memorial Hospital in Tappita, the erudite Dr. Robert M. Kpoto and UL Medical School Dean, Dr. Vuyu Golakai.
Dr. Dahn was not considered by the LMDC based on her poor rapport wit her colleagues.
But our sources said the dismissed Minister of Transport, S. Tornorlah Varpilah, who is a close ally of Dr. Gwenigale, floated the idea to Dr. Gwenigale to push for the nomination of Dr. Dahn as Minister. Mr. Varpilah is close to Dr. Dahn as well. If Dr. Dahn is appointed, Mr. Varpilah may see a comeback in the health sector where he once served before being transferred to another Ministry.
“Putting all these concerns into context, I think the President will be making a mistake in appointing Dr. Dahn as minister,” a key health stakeholder stated.
He added that the new Minister of Health would need to command the respect of donors and partners in order to continue receiving health sector donor funding.
“She has failed to take care of the big ticket items in the sector. Malaria is still killing people, diabetes and other preventable diseases are killing Liberians. She presided over a sector that crashed when the Ebola crisis hit the country. I would grade her zero in quality control and services in the health care delivery system,” he added.
In her present position, she collaborates with other stakeholders in setting policies and standards to guide and regulate health care provision and health program management in the country. Dr. Dahn is also responsible for monitoring the health care delivery system to ensure that cost-effective, quality care is provided and accessible to all, and for providing supervision and support for capacity building at various levels of the delivery system.
Dr. Dahn could not be reached for comment as she is said to be Washington DC.