A number of Havana doctors, nurses and others are under investigation for allegedly treating paying patients in public hospitals and running post-surgery recovery rooms in private homes, according to reports from Cuba.
Among those reported to have been interrogated by police are medical personnel from the Calixto García Hospital, built in the early 1900s near the University of Havana medical school, and the Workers’ Maternity Hospital.
The case highlights the growing reports of low paid Cuban medical personnel treating patients who pay under the table to receive better care than what they can receive from a deteriorated public health system — the island’s only legal alternative.
Cubans living in South Florida often pay in dollars to improve the care of relatives on the island, said Miami physician Julio Alfonso, or undergo medical procedures themselves during visits to the country to avoid the high costs of U.S. health care.
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One exile living in the United States said his family paid $500 so that his father-in-law could recover after surgery for peritonitis at a private home, with full-time nurses and a hospital-type bed. He asked for anonymity because the arrangement was illegal.
The private clinics “may not meet all the proper sanitary conditions, but I don’t doubt that they have better conditions” than many public hospitals, added Alfonso, who heads Solidarity without Borders, a group of mostly Cuban-American physicians.
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 gynecologist outside Havana. “But it has been a matter of a pig or a chicken.”
But after the Soviet Union ended its massive 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 U.S. dollars.
Cuba’s government-controlled news media have not reported on the Calixto Garcia case, although word of the detentions has been circulating in Havana for several weeks. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the blogs Havana Times and Diario de Cuba posted reports on the case Thursday and Friday.
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” — presumably by paying.
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 centers 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 anesthetics.
Last year, 13 administrators and staffers at 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.