BEIRUT: As Lebanon’s economic and financial crisis continues to squeeze the country’s populace, health care has fallen beyond the reach of many, prompting a number of doctors to try to do their part to ease the pressure.
The national currency crisis has resulted in rising unemployment rates, while a sizeable portion of the country’s residents have seen their incomes reduced or eroded. To further complicate matters, imports of medicines have become difficult, and prohibitively expensive, alongside delays in government subsidies that bridge the gap between costs and patient payments.
Consequently, as an increasing number of people find themselves unable to afford medical expenses, several medical practitioners have felt compelled to act.
The Daily Star spoke to many of them to see how those affected by the crisis are being helped with access to health care.
Hamid Bou Dib, the administrative director at Haykel Hospital in Tripoli, said lower-income patients have, as before, had emergency services covered through a combination of hospital discounts, funding from local NGOs, and subsidies from the Health Ministry.
Meanwhile, a number of doctors, speaking anonymously, admitted to having waived surgery fees and, although in some cases that contravenes hospital regulations, seeing patients outside of hospital hours for free since the beginning of the economic crisis.
Waiving surgery fees only marginally reduces the cost of procedures, but means the doctor performing the surgery is not compensated.
However, the patchwork system of health care coverage in Lebanon is riddled with gaps.
Multiple doctors told the Daily Star that the high cost of preliminary check-ups can be prohibitive, because National Social Security Fund health insurance, which protects the majority of Lebanese people, does not cover the costs of consultations and check-ups.
Dr. Ghassan Daye, a resident at LAU Medical Center – Rizk Hospital, told The Daily Star that the inability to afford preliminary check-ups and consultations is exacerbating the strain on the health care system. “People are letting existing conditions get worse, which is a burden on the health care system itself. We want to be preventative,” Daye added.
In response to the crisis, Haykel hospital is now offering free consultations one Saturday of every month. If the consultations reveal that a patient requires further examination, the hospital offers low-income patient discounts of up to 25 percent.
Bou Dib explained that this scheme had been introduced “because poverty is high in our area of Tripoli.”
“We are trying to help,” Dib said, but noted that although the hospital wanted to do more for the community, it was already struggling to pay its staff, access medical equipment and buy medicine.
Meanwhile, rather than hospital-wide initiatives, some doctors have taken personal initiatives to help alleviate the situation.
Dr. Ali Zbeeb, a cardiologist in Nabatieh, provides free consultations, ultrasounds and blood pressure monitoring from his private clinic.
Zbeeb, who would normally seeing two or three patients per day, told The Daily Star that numbers had increased steadily in recent months.
When asked why he provided free services, Zbeeb said, “You know, it is nothing. I can meet a patient in 15 minutes. It’s like a break and I feel better because these people have no money.”
However, complimentary services are primarily limited to preliminary-check-ups, with only very restricted post-consultation care available for free.
Dr. Ghassan Daye works at a specialist eye dispensary in LAU Medical Center – Rizk Hospital, which takes place four times a week. The dispensary provides consultations for $6 to people without health insurance but is unable to provide free medicines.
These actions, however, often come at a cost on doctors themselves.
“Most government institutions are pretty slow at paying hospitals and physicians back, so consultations are for many the primary income,” Daye said.
All the doctors who spoke to the Daily Star emphasized that many of their colleagues were doing what they could.
However, the prohibitive cost of preliminary checks remains a major issue in Lebanese health care.
A senior ophthalmologist, who has reportedly waived his surgery fees a number of times, told The Daily Star on condition of anonymity that he was angry about the existing coverage because of the strain it puts on hospitals and its impact on patients unable to afford preliminary check-ups whose health deteriorates as a result.
He emphasized that inherent flaws in Lebanon’s health care system have been exacerbated by the financial crisis.