Apropos of the current health care debate in the United States: What happens when a government you happen not to approve of does some good things? The case in point is Cuba, where the level of health care is startling.
Medicine has long been held up as one of the success stories of Fidel Castro’s half-century tenure.
During a Worldfocus reporting trip several months ago (February 2009), I had the chance to check out the reality of the claim at various points along the health care track. At one end of the spectrum, I spoke to a retired woman who lives with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren in a small apartment in downtown Havana. The family’s basic income is about $40 a month. They could use more money, but not for health care.
The woman, in her 70s, was considering the merits of having a foot operation. It was a standard problem to straighten out some toes. I did hear some complaints from people who complained about a shortage of doctors and waiting times. Not in this case, which I chose at random. The decision was based on the timing; she was confident in her doctor’s skill, was not worried about a delay in treatment and didn’t even consider the cost. It was free.
There was an 80-year-old writer who had a quadruple bypass several years ago. He was taken to the provincial hospital with the best reputation for the surgery, recovered at the hospital and at a facility where his family joined him, and now has regular checkups with a doctor who reminds him to keep exercising. No bill for him or his family. It was free.
I spoke to an African-American woman from New York who attends the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba. The students there are Cubans and foreigners from two dozen countries; the young woman told me the program was life-changing; she would never have had the means to study medicine in the United States. It’s free — but wait; there’s a catch. Americans who attend must promise the Cuban school that they will practice medicine in poor or under-served communities in the United States.
Finally, I interviewed Dr. Gerardo Guillen, the research director of the Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, who described pioneering pharmaceutical research. The center is experimenting with drugs to treat and cure prostate cancer and hepatitis C. The center already produces and distributes a drug that treats and cures deep wounds characteristically suffered by diabetes patients. Guillen estimates that tens of thousands of people in the United States could be saved from amputations if they had access to this particular drug. It’s not licensed in the United States.
Cuban Americans, among others, sometimes come to Cuba for treatment or for other medical intervention they could not afford back in the United States. The cost for visitors? Not free — but a fraction of what it would cost at home.
- Peter Eisner
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