Sun | Sep 24, 2017

Free health-care tragedy

Published:Tuesday | November 3, 2015 | 11:01 AMPatria-Kaye Aarons, Contributor

Free health care was a campaign promise. A cheap tactic to lure the swinging and undecided voters to the side of the Jamaica Labour Party (and persisted with by the People's National Party with the same political goals in mind). Well, perhaps not that cheap. Free health care (like a free prison) clearly has its price.

Between chik-V, a nation ill-prepared for Ebola, foot-and-mouth disease, and 19 babies lost to klebsiella and serratia, overworked health-care professionals and underfunded facilities, Fenton Ferguson has led the term of terror. The horror stories keep mounting, followed by impassioned apologies and no consequences. None.

However, administrative issues aside, a lot of the ills plaguing the health ministry are a direct result of lack of funding, and that's a conversation I feel should be had more with the minister of finance than health. Even with a significant increase in allocation in the proposed 2015-2016 Budget, I fear it still will not be enough.

It's high time we just called a spade a spade and acknowledged that the free-health campaign promise is an unrealistic bigger bite than we can chew. To continue to pretend as if this is an expense we can afford is a cruel joke. And matters of life and death are nothing to joke about.

A most unfortunate comment from our prime minister was that she "loves the poor". So much so that hospitals are now living the ghetto life. Bars of soap cut in two, makeshift surgical equipment, sending patients to pharmacies to buy drugs lickle-lickle, rinse and reuse disposable tools, and the all-purpose plastic bag (which doctors are sometimes forced to use as surgical overalls). That is everyday ghetto life mimicked in our hospitals.

I am appalled! And ashamed. This is as Third World as it gets. Were this the United States or some other heavily litigious society, the lawsuits against the State would be flying, and people would have real grounds to win their cases.

The way the funds are now being allocated, we are doing the citizens of this country a great disservice. You tell people you are offering them something for free. It comes with an expectation not that they will get what they pay for, but that they will get as if they were paying for.

Free health is perhaps the biggest unfulfilled campaign promise of the last decade. It's clear that no one did the numbers to see what it would really cost the country to provide quality health care on a sustained basis.

It's time we ascertain the real cost of health care and devise an efficient way to allocate limited resources to those who really need it. Put the money in life-saving hospital equipment and perhaps make critical-illness care free. Make a decision where the funds can be channelled in a way to make a meaningful difference. Better to spend a lot on a few and heal them than spend a little on everybody and we all remain sick.

The thinking with which we approach health care is the same one that got us in the economic hole we are in now. We insist on being impractical and living above our means. And when all kinds of matter hits the fan, it's just too late ... and we leave the next generation to clean up the mess.

I implore our government officials to stop playing politics with people's health. Be mature enough to admit that free health was a bad decision at the time. Reinstate user fees and allow the health system to heal.

- Patria-Kaye Aarons is a television presenter and confectioner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and findpatria@yahoo.com, or tweet @findpatria.