Albanians, North Macedonians wary as Steward eyes their hospitals

Maltese concerns on the management of three state hospitals by Vitals Global Healthcare – and subsequently by Steward Health Care, which bought out the failing company – have made it to Albania and North Macedonia, where the company is pursuing similar arrangements.

Reports by Albanian news site Exit and North Macedonian site Republika have also flagged former prime minister Joseph Muscat’s apparent involvement in promoting these arrangements.

In spite of its lack of a track record in the field, Vitals Global Healthcare had been awarded a concession to run St Luke’s Hospital, Karin Grech Hospital and the Gozo General Hospital, in a deal which saw the company promise significant investment in the aging hospitals. This investment never materialised, and ultimately, Vitals was bought out by Steward, an American company, for a symbolic €1.

But Vitals nevertheless sought concessions similar to the ones it obtained in Malta in other countries, a practice which has continued following Steward’s takeover. Representatives from Steward also joined Muscat when he paid a visit to North Macedonia later that year.

Steward Healthcare is reported to be aiming to take over the running of several hospitals in Albania, including one in the port city of Vlorë. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, perceived to have close ties to Zaev, has reportedly drafted a law that would allow public-private partnerships in Albania, paving the way for such an initiative, and has publicly spoken out in favour of such arrangements.

Exit and Republika have also flagged the lobbying efforts Joseph Muscat is carrying out on behalf of Steward after resigning from Prime Minister, including in a meeting with his successor Robert Abela, in which Steward demanded the renegotiation of a €250 million contract.

The plans may have hit a snag in North Macedonia however, as Zaev has stepped down ahead of a general election which will take place in April. The politician had steered the country through a process which saw it change its name from Macedonia in a bid to appease neighbouring Greece, but the EU’s reluctance to open accession negotiations led him to call for a snap election.

Incidentally, Muscat had been one of the strongest advocates for the opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in a European Council meeting last October. Muscat was reported to have insisted that the EU’s failure to open talks would dent its credibility in the Balkans. But the EU was split on the matter, and ultimately, its political leaders agreed to reschedule the decision to this year.