The other nearly 200 public hospitals that existed when Chavez took office were largely replaced by a system of walk-in clinics run by Cuban doctors that have won praise for delivering preventative care to the neediest, but do not treat serious illnesses.
The woes are not restricted to the public system. Venezuela’s 400 private hospitals and clinics are overburdened and strapped for supplies, 95 percent of which must be imported, said Carlos Rosales, president of the association that represents them.
The private system has just 8,000 of the country’s more than 50,000 hospital beds, but treats 53 percent of the country’s patients, including the 10 million public employees with health insurance. Rosales said insurers, many state-owned, are four to six months behind in payments, and it is nearly impossible to meet payrolls and pay suppliers.
Worse, the Venezuelan government price caps set in July for common procedures are impossible to meet, Rosales said. For example, dialysis treatment was set at 200 bolivars (US$30 at the official exchange rate and less than US$4 on the black market) for a procedure that costs 5,000 bolivars to administer.
“The healthcare crisis is an economic crisis. It is not a medical crisis,” said Jose Luis Lopez, who oversees labs at the Municipal Blood Bank of Caracas.
Jose Manuel Olivares, a 28-year-old medical resident in Caracas, recounted having to tell a father who brought his son in with a broken ankle that the man would have to spend more than half his monthly wages on bandages, plaster and antibiotics.
At Maracay’s 433-bed Central Hospital, mattresses are missing, broken windows go unrepaired and the cafeteria has been closed for a year. Paint peels off walls and rusty pipes lie exposed. In the halls, patients on intravenous drips lie recovering on gurneys.
“We have some antibiotics, but they aren’t usually appropriate for what you are specifically treating,” said Gabriela Gutierrez, the surgeon caring for Gonzalez.
There is no anesthesia for elective surgery.
Medical students quietly showed journalists around to avoid alerting government supporters, who bar reporters from recording images in public hospitals. Broken anesthesia machines and battered stainless-steel instrument tables, some held together with tape, filled one of five idled operating rooms. Foul odors and water from leaky pipes continue to seep into the rooms, doctors said.
In August, cancer patients protested at the eight-month mark since the hospital’s two radiotherapy machines broke down. The machines remain out of order.
Half the public health system’s doctors quit under Chavez, and half of those moved abroad, Natera said. Now, support staff are leaving, too, victim of a wage crunch as wages across the economy fail to keep up with inflation.
At the Caracas blood bank, Lopez said 62 nurses have quit so far this year along with half the lab staff. It now can take donations only on weekday mornings.
The last pre-Chavez health minister, Jose Felix Oletta, said that while the public healthcare system had its problems, the Cuban-run program of 1,200 clinics is a politically motivated waste of billions.