BEIRUT: There is growing alarm in Lebanon at the state of the country’s health care, both at the current care being provided and the potential for the situation to further deteriorate. Speaking to The Daily Star, the head of the Syndicate of Private Hospitals, Sleiman Haroun, raised concerns about the widespread inability of hospitals to pay employees and the growing difficulties hospitals are having providing essential treatment and surgery.
In November, medical suppliers reached an agreement in which the Central Bank would supply 50 percent of the dollars required to import equipment and medical supplies. Hospitals must provide the rest of the dollars required.
Hospitals pay suppliers at the unofficial dollar pound exchange rate, which has reached as high as LL2,500, compared to the official exchange rate of LL1,507.5 to the dollar, substantially increasing the cost of importing medical supplies.
Private hospitals in Lebanon are also owed an estimated $1.3 billion in dues from the Lebanese government and did not receive any money in the entirety of 2019. Sleiman said that agreements had been made for partial debt repayment but “they keep saying tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes.”
Haroun believes these two issues are the main reasons why Lebanon’s health care sector has been plunged into a crisis.
Doctors at St. Georges Hospital and Lebanese American Medical Center-Rizk Hospital both in Ashrafieh confirmed that they were still receiving payments but emphasized that this was due to their hospitals having particularly large financial reserves.
Dr. Bassim Issa from St. Georges Hospital noted with concern that “the workload has decreased because people are only coming in for essential surgery.” He believes this is because the economic crisis is making health care unaffordable.
Dr. Ghassan Daye at LAUMC-RH and Hamid Bou Dib, the administrative director at Haykel Hospital, which is just south of Tripoli, echoed these concerns saying that many patients have been allowing existing conditions to worsen and only coming into hospital in dire conditions.
Daye used the example of cataracts to show how these delays in treatment can lead to more serious patient requirements. “Patients may continue to live untreated for cataracts; this can lead to an increase in accidents caused by poor sight, and patients then need urgent operations,” he told The Daily Star.
Daye said that his practice was also suffering from not being able to bring in certain medications and that means they must “compensate for these missing medications and use alternative available supplements, but this is of course negatively affecting patient care.”
Daye pointed out that the issue of medical supplies has been around for a long time, but the issue has been exacerbated in recent months.
Both Daye and Issa said that currently equipment needed for essential surgery is still available but both expressed concern for the future.
However, Hamid said that Haykel Hospital is currently struggling to provide certain treatment and operations. “Soon we will not be able to provide life-saving surgery due to the government’s failure to pay money owed. We are also currently unable to take on new patients that need chemotherapy,” he said.
Hamid believes that the hospital faces two key issues: the shortage of money as a result of late debt repayments, and the devaluation of the Lebanese pound meaning that suppliers were now demanding LL2,475 to the dollar.
Hayek Hospital is currently paying most of its employees, but not all, and Hamid worries that in the coming months they will be increasingly unable to pay employees.
Trying to raise awareness of the severity of the situation, Haroun held two meetings this week. One with the Board of Directors of Social Security and another with the Health Ministry.
But Haroun remains pessimistic about the chances of resolving the crisis. “As long as this duality exists between the currency value, I’m not optimistic. In order to fix the currency crisis and have the debt repaid, we need a government,” he said.
After weeks of politicians bickering over political shares and the type and size of the new government, a breakthrough seems imminent.
Yet, Hamid and Haroun lamented that Lebanon faces an unsustainable and accelerating crisis without a political solution.