Could the country’s healthcare situation make things worse? Anti-government protesters chant slogans in downtown Beirut on December 11. (Ibrahim Amro/AFP via Getty Images)

HRW Raises Alarm about Future of Lebanese Hospitals

Rights group: If government does not act quickly, medical professionals may no longer be able to provide treatment

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently reported that professionals in Lebanon’s health sector have been warning they might not be able to provide emergency care if the country’s dire economic status continues.

The Lebanese government has failed to meet its financial obligations to hospitals, which has left medical centers increasingly unable to afford crucial medical supplies or salaries.

According to HRW, the government owes private Lebanese hospitals, which are responsible for providing most of the country’s medical treatment, $1.3 trillion in back payments. These medical centers are awaiting any form of government assistance for this year’s care, which has led nurses – who have not been paid – to threaten a strike.

Aya Majzoub, Lebanon and Bahrain researcher at HRW, says that hospitals are not pursuing the full amounts they are due yet need to be paid something in order to keep their operations running.

“The government is obligated to ensure the health of its citizens,” Majzoub told The Media Line. “Unless they do something about this very, very urgently, people are going to start dying in hospitals.”

Joey Ayoub, a Lebanese researcher, contends that the government defaulting on hospital payments is not surprising.

“This is the usual corruption and [lack of] competence affecting various sectors of Lebanese society….,” he told The Media Line.

Ayoub argues that the hospital situation might further fuel the anti-government protests currently engulfing Lebanon.

“I think if the hospital situation does not get better, it will be another source of outrage because the very nature of the issue might push people to be angrier and more willing to confront the government,” he said.

The Central Bank has also played a major role in the hospital crisis.

Lebanon does not have enough American currency in circulation for medical providers to purchase lifesaving equipment, as transactions for such items can only be made in dollars. This is compounded by the fact that the providers themselves are paid in the Lebanese lira.

When merchants go to their personal bank with the money they get from hospitals, the financial institution does not have dollars on hand to make the exchange. This has forced businesses to convert cash outside banks at an exchange rate of 2,200 lira to the dollar, some 40 percent more than the official exchange rate of about 1,500 lira, according to Majzoub.

In late November, the Central Bank agreed to guarantee that these suppliers could convert half of the money they need at the official exchange rate. However, they still might be unable to afford the products they need.

“Importers have told us that this isn’t viable and there is still no way for them to obtain the other 50%,” Majzoub said.

She contends that while it is difficult to calculate how many people might die as a result of the crisis, lives are definitely at risk when medical providers have no access to materials like blood bags, and nurses are not at work to provide timely care.

Majzoub also argues that the danger is not being taken seriously because the full impact has yet to be felt by patients.

“People aren’t comprehending just how dire the situation is because nobody has died, but medical importers and hospitals are really trying to sound the alarm that this is a national emergency,” she said.

Dr. Paul Barakat, a gynecologist and obstetrician at the French Hospital of the Levant in Beirut, is worried about what this will mean for his patients.

He says that because of Lebanon’s financial crisis, people are unable to pay for their care, something that has resulted in patients delaying non-emergency surgeries. On Thursday, for example, he needed to treat a patient intravenously with Augmentin, an antibiotic, but the hospital had none.

“I found another way to treat her, but we still have a [predicament],” he told The Media Line. “There are medications that don’t have alternatives. We already don’t have a lot of surgical supplies and sutures.”

Barakat has never seen anything like this in his professional career.

“Even during the Lebanese [civil] war in the ’70s, we didn’t have this issue,” he said. “We can continue like this for another month – after which we will have big problems.”

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