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Doctors say Venezuela's health care in collapse

Wednesday - 11/6/2013, 10:12pm  ET

In this Oct. 28, 2013 photo, Evelina Gonzalez speaks with a psychologist at the Central Hospital in Maracay,Venezuela. She was supposed to have surgery in July following chemotherapy but was forced to shuttle from hospital to hospital in search of an available operating table, her tumor in the meanwhile more than doubling in size. The hospital’s physicians sent some 300 patients in need of cancer operations home last month. Supply shortages, unsanitary conditions and equipment failures have forced them to scratch all but emergency surgeries. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos)

FRANK BAJAK
Associated Press

MARACAY, Venezuela (AP) -- 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. But like legions of the sick across the country, she's been neglected by a health care 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 non-emergency surgeries.

Driving the crisis in health care are the same forces that have left Venezuelans scrambling to find toilet paper, milk and automobile parts. Economists blame government mismanagement and currency controls set by the late 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's impossible to know how many have died, and the government doesn't keep such numbers, just as it hasn't 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, said Dr. Douglas Natera, president of the Venezuelan Medical Federation.

"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."

The Associated Press sought comment from Health Minister Isabel Iturria but her press office did not respond to repeated interview requests. On Wednesday, President Nicolas Maduro said she was being replaced after six months in the job. He did not explain why.

Last week, a 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 health care to Venezuelans, who sit on the world's largest proven oil reserves. Maduro's government insists it's complying. Yet of the country's 100 fully functioning public hospitals, nine in 10 have just 7 percent of the supplies they need, Natera said.

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 Dr. 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, government price caps set in July for common procedures are impossible to meet, Rosales said. For example, dialysis treatment was set at 200 bolivars ($30 at the official exchange rate and less than $4 on the black market) for a procedure that costs 5,000 bolivars to administer.

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