The quest for universal health care system in Venezuela; their successes and failures and the legacy of Hugo Chavez.
Long since the bloody civil wars and the personalist leaders of South America, Venezuela has emerged as a leader in South American politics and economics especially after the oil was found in the country. Reflecting upon this change in status quo, Venezuelan health care system has boasted on being one of the best in the region. With the rise of the Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias and his ideas of democratic socialism, the once thriving private sector has been nationalized in an effort to create a cheaper health care system in Venezuela. According to the latest stats released by the United Nations in 2008, 32% of the country lacks sewage systems, 17% of the country does not have clean water , only 3% of the water is treated, child malnutrition is at 17% and poverty rampant throughout the country and the rural areas. Thus it is not surprising that the country is ravaged by various diseases such as typhoid, yellow fever, cholera, Hepatitis A, B and D. The government under the leadership of the socialist party and Hugo Chavez has blamed private institutions of charging too much for their health care treatment and thus preventing people from getting treatment. The government has also put the blame of “racial profiling” in the country against indigenous peoples as the reason for the epidemics. Nevertheless, the country’s nationalized hospitals and state-owned facilities are lacking in much needed infrastructural upgrades and are in a poor state. Yet the current socialist administration, appealing to the broad support they enjoy from the poverty stricken, is still trying to create a national universal health care system. However, the country is experiencing a “brain drain” as doctors are starting to leave the country to seek better opportunities abroad.
Thus to counter the failings in the health care system and to maintain popular support, President Hugo Chavez began a program titled “Plan Bolivar” in 2000 – a first step among several efforts to tackle the country’s low-rate health care system. Under this plan, Venezuelan military was deployed into the rural and poverty stricken areas to combat the spread of diseases. The operation was a door-to-door mission to vaccinate as many children, providing free food in slums and other “anti poverty” initiatives like mass education. The military also received large funding from the government to provide free transportation via military helicopters to the most isolated peoples. However, the plan broke down as quickly as it was implemented. By 2001, charges of corruption and the arrest of General Cruz Weffer for diverting money from the program for other uses effectively marked the death of this program. Soon thereafter, President Chavez opened up all of his country’s military hospitals for public news in a televised speech on his TV program called “Aló Presidente.” In 2003, the president began to bring in thousands of Cuban doctors into Venezuela to help address the broken system and the lack of qualified medical professionals in the country. Dubbed “Mission Barrio Adentro,” the Cuban doctors went into rural villages and provided free basic medical treatments in order to reduce the pressure on the ailing health care system in the country. In 2005, the president launched another program called “Mission Barrio Adentro II” which started makeshift clinics in rural areas and diagnostic centers to help shift some burden from the country’s public sector. In the same year, the president launched “Mission Barrio Adentro III” to upgrade around 40 hospitals throughout Venezuela – a mission that is yet to be fulfilled. And “Mission Barrio Adentro IV” was launched to build 13 more hospitals in the rural areas. However, the Cuban doctors who defected from the program has become vocal critics of the president’s plan – as they say that the medical professionals who participate in these programs are required to campaign for Hugo Chavez in the poor and rural areas. Currently the Venezuelan health care system has more Cuban doctors participating than there are Venezuelan doctors. The Venezuelan Medical Federation (a doctor’s union) is lobbying against these government initiatives because according to them, the Cuban doctors are unqualified and their licenses are questionable. Former minister of health of Venezuela, Rafael Orihuela, says that the continued scale of disease outbreaks and the bad state of the health care system is a testament to the inefficient job the government is doing and inability of the Cuban doctors to solve the problem. Pharmacists enjoy unprecedented rights and loose supervision as drugs are dispensed without a need for prescriptions (most of the times) and they are cheap because of the national subsidies to reduce drug costs. Venezuelan private health care system is excellent but requires credit card or cash sum before treatment begins or before being taken on an ambulance so the poor have to rely on the cheap and the pathetic government system.