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Government Pledges To Expand Free Healthcare In 2006

By Nane Atshemian

The Armenian government unveiled on Monday plans to expand the range of medical services provided to the population free of charge by abolishing next year all fees levied for disease prevention and prophylaxis.

According to Armen Soghoyan, head of the healthcare department at the Yerevan municipality, the measure will apply to all state-run policlinics that are responsible for prophylactic treatment of most diseases. He said it was made possible by a planned 21 percent increase in government spending on healthcare in 2006.

The official could not say if the state will subsidize all drugs prescribed to patients by policlinic doctors. “Only one thing is known at the moment: policlinic service will be free of charge,” he told journalists. “Nobody knows yet whether that includes drugs or expensive check-ups.”

Public access to healthcare in Armenia has severely declined over the past 15 year due to widespread poverty and corruption among medical personnel. A nationwide household survey conducted by the National Statistics Service in 2003 found that only one in three people visit a medical facility once they have with problems with health.

The practice of informal payments thriving at virtually every health institution means that Armenians have to pay even for the few medical services that are officially free of charge. That includes prophylactic treatment of oncologic, cardiac, infectious and psychiatric ailments. Many Armenians are either unaware of that or feel that they will not receive proper treatment without “rewarding” doctors.

The informal payments typically range from 1,000 to 50,000 drams ($100). They go up sharply after hospitalization.

Soghoyan insisted that the government measure will complicate bribery at the policlinics as it will apply to all services. “When we say primary healthcare is free that means nobody can demand money from citizens at the policlinics anymore,” he said.

However, some groups of the population such as children under the age of 7 and pregnant women have long been entitled to free healthcare, but many of them have been unable to make use of that privilege. Maternity hospitals, for example, are among the most corrupt in the country.

Soghoyan also admitted that the government’s modest healthcare budget for 2005, projected at 38.4 billion drams ($86 million), will still leave the quality of subsidized medical services much to be desired. The figure pales in comparison with per-capital health expenditures of the developed nations.

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