Johannesburg, South Africa, Sep 22, 2016 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The unexplained deaths of three dozen mentally ill patients in a South African province show the need for action to help this vunerable population, the country’s bishops have said.

“As a society, we should never forget that the lives of the mentally ill are precious before God. The lives of the mentally ill should therefore be considered to be more important than the dictates of fiscal efficiency and profit making,” the Justice and Peace Commission of the South African Catholic Bishops’ Conference said Sept. 19. “The families and the whole country need answers. We send our heartfelt condolences to all affected families.”

Earlier this year, 36 psychiatric patients died within months of being removed from the Life Healthcare Esidimeni Centre to local NGOs and other facilities in Gauteng province. About 2,000 patients were transferred to over 120 other facilities after the contract was cancelled. The facility had contracted with the provincial government for more than 40 years.

Many patients' relatives warned that new facilities were unsuitable. Patients were also transferred without their medical files, the Times of South Africa reports. The province includes Johannesburg and the national administrative capital Pretoria.

Gauteng premier David Makhura said the number of deaths was worryingly high. He said there has been a “disturbing trend” of patient deaths in the last five years, the African News Agency reports. The bishops’ commission was waiting on results of a health department investigation but voiced “deep concern” that the health department did not heed warnings from civil society and from patients’ families that the contract cancellation with the health center and the transfer of patients was being rushed.

“We therefore continue to ask the health department to put adequate measures to ensure sustainable levels of control to health care costs,” the bishops’ commission said. “We reiterate our position that a health system that puts profit before people, and without adequate measures for cost control, is both unsustainable for the country and a death sentence to the poor.”

They said that the health department’s deinstitutionalization plan for mental health care should not be used “as a pretext to shirk on its constitutional responsibilities to provide adequate care to the mentally ill.”