Carol Bhagan-Khan, wife of Health Minister Fuad Khan, is marking her second week on the job as director of health at the North West Regional Health Authority (NWRHA) after eventually accepting the controversial job last month."Once I'm qualified for the post as I am, I see no reason why in a democratic country, I should be discriminated against regarding a job I applied for in the proper way–and qualified for it–simply because of who I'm married to," Bhagan-Khan said yesterday.
"I'll be reporting to the NWRHA board and CEO and not the minister and if there's any indiscipline issue, there is an industrial policy to guide any procedure. The minister is not involved in that," she added.Since assuming the post on November 1, Bhagan-Khan has been touring health centres and hospitals.
A November 5, 2013, memo on the executive appointment, which went out within NWRHA, stated that Bhagan-Khan was director of health effective November 1, 2013. It was signed by the NWRHA's general manager of human resources.NWRHA chairman Dr Eddison Haqq yesterday confirmed the appointment.The two-year contract carries a monthly salary of approximately $20,000 and perks.
A specialist in occupational health and safety as well as an attorney, Bhagan-Khan was spotlighted in April when she applied for the job, reportedly causing "grumbling in NWRHA" quarters when it came to light she was interviewed and in line for it. She was quoted then as saying she was verbally told she had "probably gotten the job" and a contract was in the offing.
The issue aroused public criticism on the basis of perceived conflict of interest, since Bhagan-Khan's husband is the Health Minister. Unnamed sources had questioned how discipline issues regarding Bhagan-Khan might be dealt with, since her husband was minister.At the time, however, Minister Khan said if the procedure had been done transparently he could have no problems with it, but would have if it was not done that way.
After the furor broke, Bhagan-Khan said she was undecided about the job and hadn't made a definite decision on it. She was subsequently reported as saying she was never formally "offered" any top paying job and if she was, she no longer wanted it.Bhagan-Khan, at the time, also said her husband had raised concerns about her going for the interview. But she said she opted to go since she was qualified for the post and should not have been barred from applying because of her relationship with the minister.
Contacted by the T&T Guardian yesterday, Bhagan-Khan confirmed she had changed her mind on the issue after being approached by NWRHA a few months ago."I don't see why not, since I have the freedom to make a choice or to change my mind if I wish in T&T," she added.
Bhagan-Khan, former chairman of the Occupational Safety and Health Authority, said she had never got a firm offer in writing before acceptance this time. She said she was contacted by the NWRHA a few months ago with the news that the post had not been filled and if she was still interested, since she was qualified for it.She said she deliberated on the matter and took a while before she changed her mind, around October.
Explaining the genesis of the situation, Bhagan-Khan said she first applied for the position last year when the post was advertised. At the time, she said even though she came first in the interview in 2012, she wasn't chosen. She said she believed this was due to concerns the board had about the favouritism issue.
The job, it is understood, went to another NWRHA officer who acted in the post until it came up for renewal in 2013 and was advertised again. She said she applied when the post was advertised again in April 2013 and topped applicants again.
Bhagan-Khan said that in April the issue of public perception regarding favouritism arose again, but it was also noted by some board members that she would be reporting to the board and not her husband. She said she felt if the issue about her husband had disqualified her, she would have been discriminated against. She said, however, that despite the fact she topped the second interview, she put the job issue behind after criticisms arose in the public domain in April.
But Bhagan-Khan said after being approached a few months ago and told the post was still vacant, she changed her mind and accepted. She said this was particularly because after the furor, she received many calls of support from people who said she should not have refused the job offer as she was qualified for it. She said she felt she would have been depriving the public–and T&T–of her wealth of expertise if she had not applied for the job.
She added: "I have legal expertise in addition to other qualifications in the field, so for instance I would be well placed to scrutinise contracts and see if they are viable or not and determine if various procedures are cost effective; so I have a lot to offer."
Asked about conflict of interest in the situation because of her husband's position, Bhagan-Khan said she did not see this arising, since she had been given special assignments and a specific job description and answers to the NWRHA board and CEO. She said her husband didn't interfere in issues."...And I plan to do my best," she added.Dr Suresh Pooran, who acted in the post since January 2010 and was shortlisted for the post, was said by the NWRHA in April "to be not interested in the post."
Yesterday, however, health sources indicated "some people were still sore" at Bhagan-Khan's taking up the post.
Board chair: Good choice
NWRHA chairman Dr Eddison Haqq said yesterday that Carol Bhagan-Khan had topped applicants both times she went up for the post of director of health.He said all required procedures were done–advertising, shortlisting and interviews. He said there was need to fill the position for some time and it was advertised. He said Bhagan-Khan applied and she topped it the first time in 2012 and also in 2013 when the process was repeated.
Haqq said Bhagan-Khan was recently contacted and informed, through mutual agreement, of the job.On conflict of interest, Haqq said once all procedures were adhered to, as they were, that would not arise.On her functioning and her husband's position, Haqq added: "I don't expect any problems to arise as the minister has always dealt very objectively. Mrs Bhagan-Khan reports to the CEO and the CEO reports to the board so that structure and process remains in place."
Haqq said the CEO to whom Bhagan-Khan reports is appointed by the board and not the minister.He also said the board was not appointed by the current minister but had been appointed in November 2010 when former Health Minister Therese Baptiste-Cornelis was in place. She was shifted in 2011 and Fuad Khan was appointed then. The board was reappointed in 2012 with minor changes, Haqq said.
Fuad: She hasher own mind
Nobody handpicked her for the job!"She responded to an advertisement and was interviewed and was successful, and she shouldn't be discriminated against–all citizens are entitled to jobs," Health Minister Fuad Khan said yesterday.Commenting on his wife's new job as NWRHA health director, Khan added: "She'll do well. She's highly qualified and they're getting free legal advice on medico-legal issues."
After saying earlier in the year that if his wife got the job it might have placed him in a "precarious position," Khan said he has now reconsidered and believes: "Everyone deserves a chance to do what they can do best, whether she's my wife or not. The process was transparent and I would always stand behind the proper process."
Pressed on perceptions that could arise from the situation, Khan said: "Personally, at this time, she has her own brain, her own body and she has her own mind and she's doing a job she's trained to do...so be it. But if her doing that job puts me in jeopardy then we have a very immature society."Khan said while the PP had a policy that the husbands and wives of ministers should not have board positions, his wife's job was not a political appointment, since she applied for a job, was interviewed for it and was successful.
"So nobody handpicked her," he reiterated.
Precarious positionfor minister–Browne
The spotlight must now fall on Health Minister Fuad Khan following the appointment of Khan's wife Carol Bhagan-Khan as NWRHA director of health, says People's National Movement (PNM) Diego Martin Central MP Dr Amery Browne."Given Minister Khan's reported statement earlier this year that such an appointment would put him in a 'precarious position,' one would want to know if he remains in a precarious position and if he views this appointment as a conflict of interest," Browne said yesterday.
"Even though Bhagan-Khan may not be reporting to the minister directly, she would be reporting to a board of directors appointed by the minister"The NWRHA board would do well to explain how she didn't succeed last year and placed first in 2013."Browne said he understood Bhagan-Khan was first interviewed by the NWRHA for the post in 2012 and "didn't succeed" and was subsequently interviewed again in April 2013.
"She was interviewed by a board appointed by the Minister of Health and my information is that she was being appointed as of May 1, 2013...the Health Minister then admitted in a media interview that it put him a precarious position," he said."But clearly all this was aimed at allowing the controversy to die down before the position was quietly offered and accepted.
"So the spotlight must once again fall on this Health Minister who seems to have had numerous challenges throughout his tenure, including the credit card issue, 'moonlighting' at a private hospital he was involved with –on which the Prime Minister gave him an ultimatum–and now his wife's appointment to this health position."