Health woes mount for majority as fees go up

STRUGGLING Zimbabweans will soon have to dig deeper into their shallow pockets after Health minister David Parirenyatwa appended his signature to new medical tariffs that are set to be gazetted.

Elias Mambo

Ordinary consultation fees for general practitioners will be around 75% higher as approved by government, which will see tariffs increasing from US$20 to around US$35 per visit while consultation fees for specialist doctors will be revised downwards from about US$80 to US$65 a visit.

Current tariffs require patients to pay US$20 as consultation fees to general practitioners — an amount almost similar to that paid by patients in South Africa and France.

The proposed increases come at a time the majority of Zimbabweans are eking out a living below the poverty datum line as well as facing increases in prices of basic commodities and services, while electricity tariffs are also set to rise.

The country is still struggling to emerge from an economic crisis that lasted for more than a decade, amid fresh signs the economy is under renewed pressure largely due to a liquidity crunch.

Zimbabwe’s medical costs are among the highest in Southern Africa, and almost at par with fees charged in developed world countries.

Compared to South Africa which has very sophisticated equipment and where an increasing number of Zimbabweans are turning to for treatment, medical services in Zimbabwe costs the proverbial arm and a leg.

Investigations revealed South Africans pay between R300 (US$27) to R350 (US$32) as consultation to private medical facilities while all public institutions are free. In Mozambique, the majority of people go to public institutions where they do not pay anything. However, most specialists are in the private business and the consultation fee is around US$30.

According to a local daily, the cost of medical care in Zimbabwe is more than twice that of India, South Africa, Zambia and Malawi, among other developing countries, but almost similar with those in United Kingdom, France and Australia where the standard of living and earnings are higher.

Last December, a Harare family was involved in an accident and was asked to pay US$7 000 before their son could be attended to by a neurosurgeon.

“We were asked to pay a deposit of US$2 500 to the neurosurgeon and US$5 000 to the hospital before any procedures could be done,” said a family representative who spoke to the Zimbabwe Independent. “We discovered it was cheaper to undergo the same procedure in India with travel costs and accommodation included.”

A Caesarian section specialist charges US$1 700, which is nearer to the fees in Australia where it costs US$2 118. However, in South Africa the same procedure costs US$216 and in France the fee is US$938, according to a local daily.

Maxwell Saungweme, a local analyst, said Zimbabwe’s tariffs have always been high.

“Zimbabwe’s tariffs are already too high and it defies logic to think that the government would want to increase them further,” Saungweme said. “This looks like a government with no clue of the realities facing the ordinary people. There is no basis for the increase given that they are already higher compared to other countries in the region.”

Added Saungweme: “Zimbabweans are struggling to make ends meet as they are faced with a poorly performing economy riddled with endemic corruption. It’s sad that the government now wants to put the burden of their corrupt practices on innocent citizens who are already struggling.”

The increase in tariffs comes against the backdrop of government’s proposal to introduce a compulsory health insurance scheme for employees which faced stiff resistance from already overburdened taxpayers whom some statistics put at a mere 20% of the employable population.

Late last year, Deputy Health minister Paul Chimedza said government was holding discussions to introduce a new compulsory fund to finance health care in a holistic manner.

Chimedza told parliament: “The two ministries (Health and Labour) at some point, had proposed that there be a National Health Insurance Fund and that this fund comes as a levy, not just focusing on cancer, but focusing on the whole health-care sector and for anyone who gets sick, whether in the rural areas or towns, he orshe just needs to walk to the hospital and get service, but that service will be paid for from that fund and then that health institution will be able to pay its workers — the nurses and doctors.”

According to government, the fund would cushion workers who cannot afford high medical aid fees being charged by medical aid societies, including government’s indebted Premier Service Medical Aid Society.

Zimbabwe’s public health sector has been hard-hit by a wide range of problems, including drug and medicine shortages, the exodus of skilled medical personnel and high costs of medical care.

Sources within medical aid societies claim they have resorted to sending some of their members to countries where such procedures are cheaper.

“Some procedures are expensive locally even if we factor in transport and accommodation costs, hence the decision to send our members where sought services are cheaper,” said a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.