JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - At least 94 psychiatric patients died of negligence in South Africa last year after they were moved from a licensed home to unregistered facilities, the health ombudsman said on Wednesday, sparking public outrage.
About 1,300 psychiatric patients were moved from a unit of the Life Healthcare Group to charities during last year in a cost-cutting bid by the health department in Gauteng province, the commercial hub where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located.
The ombudsman said that all 27 facilities to which the patients were transferred operated under invalid licenses.
Experts say mental health care takes the backseat in funding and public hospitals do not have enough equipment or staff.
"The decision was unwise and flawed, with inadequate planning and a chaotic and rushed or hurried implementation process," Professor Malegapuru Makgoba said in his report.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance party criticized Gauteng's provincial government over the scandal, while several horrified callers to radio shows and on social media demanded an overhaul of the health department in the country.
Makgoba said the death toll was "a provisional number" and could rise because more people were coming forward with information. He said only one person died from a mental illness.
"It's remarkable that only one person has died from a mental health-related illness," he told journalists. The other 93 "have died from other things like dehydration, diarrhea, epilepsy, heart attacks, all other things except mental illness".
He recommended that the rest of the patients who had been moved to the unlicensed facilities be transferred to hospitals.
The head of the provincial government health department, Qedani Mahlangu, resigned a day before the report was released.
In September, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi asked Makgoba to investigate after 36 patients following their transfer from the licensed home to various NGOs.
(Reporting by James Macharia; Editing by Tom Heneghan)