Health Minister Arsen Torosian on Tuesday defended his decision to shut down small maternity hospitals across Armenia, while agreeing to make concessions to some of them following protests staged by medics and other local residents.
A directive signed by Torosian in July 2018 mandates the closure of state-funded maternity hospitals handling fewer than 150 childbirths annually. It argues that these medical institutions located in small towns and villages are understaffed, poorly equipped and not cost-effective, increasing the risk of newborn deaths.
“Imagine that in a maternity hospital lacking an operating room there is an urgent need for caesarian section during a child delivery,” Torosian told reporters. “What should that hospital do? Can you tell me?”
He said that pregnant women will instead be able to give birth at larger and better equipped hospitals located not far from their communities.
The Armenian Ministry of Health stopped financing such hospitals this month, sparking angry protests in several communities affected by the controversial decision.
In the northwestern town of Maralik, several dozen people blocked a major highway in protest last week. They unblocked it only after provincial authorities pledged to organize public discussions on the matter.
Protests continued in another town, Yeghvard, on Tuesday. Ruzanna Mkrtchian, an obstetrician working at the local maternity hospital, complained that she and her colleagues are not in a position to ensure the threshold for child births set by the ministry.
“That depends on people’s living standards, people’s free choice, emigration rates,” said Mkrtchian. “Nothing depends on us.”
“I had 16 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren here,” said an elderly Yeghvard resident taking part in the protest.
The protesters dispersed only after Romanos Petrosian, the governor of the surrounding Kotayk province, talked to them and claimed to have received assurances from Torosian that the hospital will not be closed for now.
“There are nuances, regional issues which the health minister is not obliged to know as profoundly as the governor may know,” said Petrosian.
Torosian clarified afterwards that the hospitals in Maralik, Yeghvard and elsewhere may be allowed to continue to operate if they address their staff shortages and improve their facilities.
“If there is no operating room, if there is no intensive care, if there is not even an anesthesiologist at a maternity hospital, then this will be out of the question no matter how many roads they block,” he said.
The minister also stressed: “We will definitely not be negotiating with those hospitals that handle 10 child deliveries [annually] but we may negotiate with those that handle around 100 or just over 100 births.”