BEIRUT — Following allegations of neglect and mistreatment that led to the death of a patient, Health Minister Firass Abiad said Friday that the ministry will end any contracts with the Santa Maria Center, a facility treating patients with neurological and mental illnesses, and will shut down its two branches in Ras Osta and Halat.
Photos and videos that went viral on social media in recent days showed inhumane conditions at the Ras Osta center housing 66 patients, some of whom were shown looking emaciated and living in unsanitary conditions, with allegations of insect infestations and patients being fed expired food.
During a tour of the Ras Osta branch by Abiad and other government officials on Saturday, the center’s director, Joseph Harb, claimed that the treatment facility had been “facing difficulties in securing [its] needs in light of the financial crisis” and alleged that the center has not received the government dues owed to it since the beginning of 2021, amounting to LL900 million, the NNA reported.
Abiad acknowledged that “the economic crisis and the halt of subsidies have negatively affected the center” and promised that the ministry will increase the fees paid to facilities providing mental health treatment.
“However, the economic hardships don’t justify the center’s inhumane actions, and this is why the ministry has taken its decision in shutting the center down,” he said.
The Health Minister also announced that the ministry’s medical care directorate has been assigned to inspect all mental health care centers located in Lebanon and will submit a report on their conditions to the Health Ministry within a month. The ministry had a preexisting inspection program, but inspections and reports will now be more frequent.
Abiad added that the doctors who were previously assigned to monitor the Santa Maria Center will be terminated.
Social worker and activist Afif Shoman had revealed the alleged neglect last week in a video posted on Twitter, which showed an emaciated patient tied to a hospital bed at the center.
Following the allegations, the Health Ministry opened an investigation into the case and moved to transfer the patients who were being treated at the Santa Maria Center to the Halat Health Care center, “which is fully equipped” to treat them, the Ministry of Health said in a statement.
On Thursday, Shoman reported that one of the patients at the center had died of “malnutrition and neglect.” Abiad confirmed Friday that a patient had died.
Joseph El Khoury, vice president of the Lebanese Psychiatric Society told L’Orient Today that the sector of residential mental and social health centers in Lebanon is regulated “by either old or vague guidelines, in addition to [receiving]poor inspection and surveillance from national authorities.”
Khoury said he suspects that there are other centers where vulnerable patients are being mistreated or neglected.
“What happened at Santa Maria is wake-up call to look into each of these centers to make sure that patients who are already suffering don’t go through another painful journey.”
In 2019, Al-Fanar Psychiatric Hospital in Msaileh was shut down by the Health Ministry after media reports showed that the facility lacked basic hygiene and supplies, adequate bedding and bathrooms, or any form of heating system. The patients were then sent to alternative centers, including Santa Maria Center.
“The dismal conditions reported in the Santa Maria Center clearly illustrate how the Lebanese government has forsaken and mistreated people with disabilities and mental health conditions,” Aya Majzoub, Lebanon researcher for Human Rights Watch told L’Orient Today. “The Health and Social Affairs ministries should urgently launch an independent and transparent investigation into who was responsible for the dire state of the Santa Maria Center.”
Majzoub added that this incident should also be a “wake-up call to the authorities to conduct a complete review and reform of Lebanon’s social institutions to ensure that those are adequately funded, comply with the highest health and safety standards, and are subject to regular inspections and accountability.”