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Disintegration: Another look at universal health care in Venezuela

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
November 7th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

As the United States hurtles towards health care reform, a neighbor to the south is having some serious issues. Venezuela's 1999 constitution guarantees free universal health care to its citizens. The South American nation sits atop the world's largest proven oil reserves. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government says it's making good on its promise,but of the country's 100 fully functioning public hospitals, nine in 10 have just seven percent of the supplies they need.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic online) - The other nearly 200 public hospitals in Venezuela have been largely replaced by a system of walk-in clinics run by Cuban doctors. These clinics, while high on preventative care, are unable to address major illnesses.

One of Venezuela's biggest medical facilities, Maracay's Central Hospital last month sent home 300 cancer patients when supply shortages and overtaxed equipment made it impossible for them to perform non-emergency surgeries.

Venezuelans are now scrambling to find toilet paper, milk and automobile parts. Government mismanagement and currency controls set by the late President Hugo Chavez for inflation is being blamed for the current crisis. The government controls the dollars needed to buy medical supplies and has simply not made enough available.

Venezuelan doctors not allied with the government say many patients began dying from easily treatable illnesses when Venezuela's downward economic slide accelerated after Chavez's death from cancer in March. The government doesn't keep such numbers, just as it hasn't published health statistics since 2010.

Needles, syringes and paraffin used in biopsies to diagnose cancer, drugs to treat it, operating room equipment, X-ray film and imaging paper, blood and the reagents needed so it can be used for transfusions are all in desperately short supply.

The Venezuelan government suspended organ donations and transplants last month. At least 70 percent of radiotherapy machines are now inoperable in a country with 19,000 cancer patients, meaning fewer than 5,000 can be treated.

"Two months ago we asked the government to declare an emergency," Dr. Douglas Natera, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation says, whose doctors group is the country's largest. "We got no response."

Deputy health minister Nimeny Gutierrez denied on state TV that the system is in crisis, saying supplies are arriving regularly from Cuba, Uruguay, Colombia and Portugal, and additional purchases "will let us be moderately relaxed until the end of the year."

Overall, Venezuela's 400 private hospitals and clinics are overburdened and strapped for supplies, 95 percent of which must be imported.

"The health care crisis is an economic crisis. It is not a medical crisis," Dr. Jose Luis Lopez, who oversees labs at the Municipal Blood Bank of Caracas says.

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