Senator Lanre Tejuoso is the outgoing Chairman, Senate Committee on Health. He will be leaving the National Assembly with his head held high for championing some of the most important Bills in the eighth assembly, especially on issues relating to human capital development, healthcare financing, nutrition, among others. In this exclusive interview with Martins Ifijeh, while revealing his future plans after exiting the parliament, he spoke about his four years in the red chambers, the challenges, the facilitation of BHCPF, which is currently being implemented, NHIC Act, Consolidated Revenue Fund, among other healthcare financing policies. Excerpts:
How has the journey been since you were elected a senator?
It has been quite exciting as well as enlightening. I didn’t really understand fully how the Senate worked until I came in. What we witness and do on ground is completely different from public perception. A lot of work goes on in the legislature. It has been educative as well.
So many bills were passed in this eighth assembly, how many did you facilitate?
I sponsored eight Bills, five motions, co-sponsored seven motions and also facilitated the passage of more than 17 other Bills that were sponsored by my colleagues. Some of them include the recently passed National Health Insurance Commission Bill which seeks to make it mandatory that every Nigerian contribute to health insurance and that we have a robust health services agency to cater for the health needs of all Nigerians. The others are Federal Capital Territory Health Insurance Agency Bill and FCT Primary Healthcare Board Bill.
As the chairman, senate committee on health, did you at any point feel the responsibility was enormous for you?
Of course, there were times I felt so. It gets to a point where the work is overwhelming. The major problem with the health sector is financing. I was in a meeting with some developing partners when I was informed about the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) strike in May 2018. You know what it means when JOHESU goes on strike. Health delivery services are on standstill and patients are left unattended. I immediately called for a meeting with them after which I engaged in several other meetings to end the strike. The strike lasted a little over 40 days. It was a difficult period.
While I was dealing with that, I was also responding to reports of children dying of severe acute malnutrition, women sleeping and receiving medical treatment under a tree in a Northern state, women dying during childbirth, the medical condition at Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps and Northeast, and also petitions from Nigerians on health sector malpractices.
These issues are enormous but I am glad to have been part of the process of resolving most issues as I could and in some cases initiate genuinely proactive measures to mitigate against reoccurrence.
What were your biggest fears in the Senate?
I think any leader’s biggest fear will be the fear of disappointing those who trusted you with their votes- the great people of Ogun Central Senatorial District and by extension, Nigerians. I am glad majority of my people are impressed with my representation.
You championed a lot of programs in the senate. Which were most challenging for you?
Budget cuts were challenging. Having understood the enormous need for finance in our health sector I ensured there were no budget cuts for the Ministry of Health. In fact I would advocate for more funds to cater for cancer patients, vulnerable Nigerians, etc. Because a number of committees were cutting budgets but for me, not health. You cannot play politics with human life. Convincing my colleagues was sometimes challenging because some would argue that “they cut from this committee and that committee” but I always stood my ground from 2015 till 2019 appropriation processes.
Do you feel fulfilled championing the earmarking of CRF in the national budget?
Of course, I feel fulfilled championing the earmarking of the Consolidated Revenue Fund for basic healthcare. Do you know what N55 billion can do for our health sector? That is what has given way for state governments to push for their health insurance schemes so they can access these funds. I have had several meetings with Nigerian doctors abroad and professional medical practitioners who would like to move back to Nigeria and I have told them that this money will be paid directly to the Primary Health Centers (PHCs) which some of them can head.
They can manage the process of procuring drugs, equipment, and payment of salaries. So the issue of strike will be a thing of the past. Once you have funds flowing directly to the PHCs, you automatically unburden the hospitals we have now and strengthen the PHC to provide basic primary care. If we continue on this path, we will stop losing about N400 billion to medical tourism and we will be better positioned to provide some of the best health services in Africa.
For many development partners, it is surprising you are not coming back to the ninth Assembly. Are there other capacities you will still contribute to the health of this country?
Well, like I said recently at an event, I am leaving the Senate but not the health sector. I am a medical doctor and have been practicing for years. I will continue to participate in shaping policies that will strengthen our institutions.
At a recent meeting with some stakeholders, a group of about eight persons called me to the side and insisted that I must assure them that the next chairman senate committee on health will continue our work. I laughed endlessly.
Our party, the All Progressive Congress (APC), is a progressive party. Leadership in all sectors and across board is continuous no matter who occupies the seat.
What were the things you would have done better in the health sector?
Health financing is key. We cannot stop exploring opportunities to attract funding. I would also encourage our doctors to stay in Nigeria. Whatever problems they feel they’re running from is a collective problem. These are our problems. We should stay and fix them.
I would generally encourage all health sector workers to stay committed to the Nigerian cause. President Muhammadu Buhari is personally on a journey towards building the greatest health services system in Africa. We should all team up and make it happen.
Any regret on your actions in the Senate?
I have no regret whatsoever. Like Paul said in the bible, I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
Generally, how would you access the eighth Assembly?
We did great work. Every senator did the best they could for their people.
Do you think the divide between the Executive and the National Assembly hampered some progress in the country?
I think it only slowed down the speed at which more work would have been done. The ninth Senate will have a smooth relationship with the Executive.
After leaving the senate, what next? Back to private life or ministerial position on the pipeline?
I have known Mr. President since our days in the All Nigeria People’s Congress (ANPP) and CPC where we worked very closely together. I will never turn him down if he finds me worthy of serving our nation in any capacity whatsoever. But for now, it’s the private life for me.
How do you unwind?
I read my bible, sing praises to God, watch Pastor Benny Hinn, spend time with family and friends, as well as read comments on my social media accounts.