By Anna Saghabalian
At least half of Armenia’s population does not know that it is entitled to a range of medical services free of charge and avoids visiting doctors because of that, according to a UN study made public on Monday.
“Only 38.7 percent of people across the republic and only about 20 percent of Yerevan residents are aware of medical services paid by the state,” Movses Aristakesian, an expert with the UN Development Program office in Yerevan, told reporters, presenting the findings of a household survey conducted by the UNDP in 2003.
Aristakesian said a staggering 45 percent of those polled described themselves as “sick” but only half of them claimed to have sought treatment at a hospital or policlinic. Almost all of the other respondents avoided doing so for lack of money, he added.
The UNDP poll is in line with government research and anecdotal evidence which indicate that most Armenians suffering from various illnesses turn to doctors as a last resort, when hospitalization becomes their only chance of survival.
Most medical services in Armenia officially became paid following the Soviet collapse, dramatically reducing public access to health. The country’s cash-strapped governments have been unable to meet the sector’s basic needs.
Still, some key services such as medical check-ups and consultations are subsidized by the state and supposed to be free of charge. Socially vulnerable groups of the population have additional privileges, while children under the age of 7 are exempt from all medical payments.
Many Armenians are either unaware of that or, which is more common, forced to pay bribes and make other informal payments to doctors and other medical personnel. “Patients routinely pay for their drugs and take care of other expenditures by the medical personnel,” said Aristakesian.
Another serious problem, according to Aristakesian, is the inefficient use or embezzlement of scarce governments funds by hospital chiefs and senior doctors.
So far there have been no reported cases of doctors or other medical staff prosecuted on corruption charges. Some Western donor agencies implementing social projects in Armenia have suggested that the authorities set up a special telephone hotline for victims of healthcare bribery.
Government spending on health is to grow by 32 percent to 32.3 billion drams ($68 million) this year. Officials say a large part of the extra money will be used for raising public sector medics’ modest salaries and making policlinic treatment 100 percent free for pensioners.