HAVANA, Cuba, Friday July 27, 2012 – Reports out of Cuba indicate that a number of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have been interrogated by police for allegedly treating private, paying patients in public hospitals and running post-operative recovery rooms in private homes.
Personnel from the Calixto García Hospital and the Workers’ Maternity Hospital are said to be among those under investigation.
The reports focus on low paid Cuban medical personnel allegedly treating patients who pay under the table to receive better care than that available from the public health system, which is the island’s only legal option.
Elective surgeries, including a range of cosmetic plastic surgery, are also said to be commonplace – at a price.
According to Miami physician Julio Alfonso, Cubans living in South Florida often pay in dollars to improve the care of relatives on the island or undergo medical procedures themselves during visits to the country to avoid the high costs of health care in the United States.
Doctors in Cuba, where the government controls the entire health system, have long provided better treatment to patients who could give them “a little gift,” said the father of a gynaecologist outside Havana. “But it has been a matter of a pig or a chicken.”
But after the Soviet Union ended its subsidies to the island in the early 1990s, the public health system began to deteriorate and medical personnel started to offer more complex procedures for cash, usually US dollars.
Word of the Calixto Garcia Hospital investigation has been circulating in Havana for weeks. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the blogs Havana Times and Diario de Cuba have all posted reports on the case.
Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez said he had confirmed reports that five to 12 medical personnel had been detained for interrogation and sent home to await the prosecutors’ decisions. They were alleged to have performed relatively simple procedures, such as plastic surgeries and abortions, on paying patients in public hospitals.
The BBC correspondent in Havana, Fernando Ravsberg, noted the Calixto Garcia case and wrote that “all members of the political class have a relative or a friend who has had liposuction or received breast implants”.
A Huffington Post correspondent interviewed a woman who had reportedly received breast and buttocks implants under the covert scheme.
The Calixto García case reportedly involved procedures that took place at night, Havana Times blogger Erasmo Calzadilla wrote. Ambulance drivers later delivered the patients to the post-surgery care centres in private homes.
Darsi Ferrer, a Havana physician and dissident who arrived in Miami last month, said the under the table medical treatments have long been “the day-to-day reality” for Cuba’s medical personnel and public hospitals.
Surgeons earn about 600 pesos per month — about $21 — and hospitals often must ask patients to bring their own bed sheets, soap and light bulbs. Nurses make extra money by giving injections at home, and dentists charge under the table for anaesthetics.
Last year, 13 administrators and staffers at a Havana psychiatric hospital popularly known as Mazorra were sentenced to five to 15 years in prison for the death of 26 elderly patients during a cold snap in 2010. The personnel had allegedly stolen food, blankets and medical supplies that had been earmarked for the patients.