Fri, Nov 08, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Venezuela government healthcare leaves patients to own devices

Experts say the policies of Hugo Chavez have created the country’s healthcare meltdown, which critics say is an economic crisis, not a medical one

By Frank Bajak  /  AP, MARACAY, Venezuela

Evelina Gonzalez was supposed to undergo cancer surgery in July following chemotherapy, but wound up shuttling from hospital to hospital in search of an available operating table. On the crest of her left breast, a mocha-colored tumor doubled in size and now bulges through her white spandex tank top.

Gonzalez is on a list of 31 breast cancer patients waiting to have tumors removed at one of Venezuela’s biggest medical facilities, Maracay’s Central Hospital. However, like legions of the sick across the country, she has been neglected by a healthcare system doctors say is collapsing after years of deterioration.

Doctors at the hospital sent home 300 cancer patients last month when supply shortages and overtaxed equipment made it impossible for them to perform nonemergency surgeries.

Driving the crisis in healthcare are the same forces that have left Venezuelans scrambling to find toilet paper, milk and car parts. Economists blame government mismanagement and currency controls set by late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez for inflation pushing 50 percent annually. The government controls the dollars needed to buy medical supplies and has simply not made enough available.

“I feel like I’ve been abandoned,” Gonzalez, 37, tells a bright-eyed hospital psychologist trying to boost her morale.

Her right eye is swollen by glaucoma diagnosed two years ago, but left untreated when she had trouble getting an appointment.

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.

Doctors say it is impossible to know how many have died, and the government does not keep such numbers, just as it has not published health statistics since 2010.

Almost everything needed to mend and heal is in critically short supply: 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.

Last month, the government suspended organ donations and transplants.

At least 70 percent of radiotherapy machines, precisely what Gonzalez will need once her tumor is removed, are now inoperable in a country with 19,000 cancer patients — meaning fewer than 5,000 can be treated, Venezuelan Medical Federation president Douglas Natera said.

“Two months ago we asked the government to declare an emergency,” said Natera, whose doctors’ group is the country’s largest. “We got no response.”

Venezuelan Health Minister Isabel Iturria’s press office did not respond to repeated interview requests.

Last week, Venezuelan 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.”

The interviewer read a viewer’s question about Central Hospital patients being forced to buy their own supplies.

“It’s a hospital that received permanent stocks from us,” Gutierrez said, promising to investigate.

The country’s 1999 constitution guarantees free, universal healthcare to Venezuelans, who sit on the world’s largest proven oil reserves. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government insists it is complying. Yet of the country’s 100 fully functioning public hospitals, nine out of 10 have just 7 percent of the supplies they need, Natera said.

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