NHI: being fair to the poor

2011-08-27 14:41

I decided to leave the fate of my troublesome ear in the hands of the gods after quitting my treatment at the Ga-Rankuwa Hospital (now Dr George Mukhari Academic Hospital) back in 1992.I chose to bear the searing pain and discomfort rather than experience the chaotic conditions and long queues that meant missing a whole day of school.

You stood in three different queues for about six hours or more just to spend a few rushed minutes in the hands of a doctor.

You arrived at the outpatient department as early as possible, in my case just before 6am, hoping to be in the front of the queue. But this was always a futile exercise because scores of patients would spend the night sleeping on hard benches in the unwelcoming hospital surrounds just to be ahead the following morning. And that first queue was only to get your outpatients file from the clerks who only started work at 7am.

If I was lucky, I would be in the ENT (ear, nose and throat) queue by 10am. But this didn’t mean much because you were unlikely to be seen by a doctor until long after lunch time.

Sitting in those long queues was such an assault on one’s dignity to the extent that on many occasions I often wished I was the rich man’s dog that former president Samora Machel once said received better medical care than the ordinary Mozambican citizen.

It felt even worse watching poor elderly citizens with no other alternative or means, sitting it out and assuaging the pangs of hunger with dry bread and water just to access this basic human right called healthcare.

Even the contact with the doctor was a brief, impersonal affair – grab your file, examine your ear, scribble something in there and send you out to dispensary.

There you joined scores of other patients sent from other departments to wait and wait and wait for your name to be called on the public address system.

By the time you walked through the hospital gates carrying your pills, you would get caught up in the late afternoon rush as the workers you met on their way to work early that morning returned home.

Now, though, the 1994 national elections have brought about many changes, including the renaming of Ga-Rankuwa Hospital. But then again, it is an undeniable fact that conditions at most public hospitals remain dire.

This is the reason I welcome the National Health Insurance (NHI) as a long overdue intervention from the government. I was particularly pleased to learn that the plan’s primary aim was to bring about “a radical improvement in the quality of services in the public health facilities”.

Though I am part of the privileged 16% of the South African population who are on medical aid, I was particularly pleased also to learn that this health insurance seeks to deal with the issue of high costs in the private health sector.

In a country that prides itself on having the most liberal of constitutions, it is a travesty of justice that a vast 84% of the population is denied access to this basic right simply because they cannot afford it.

It must be said that a system without stiff competition can easily be open to abuse, which, in the private healthcare sector, manifests itself as unnecessarily lengthy admissions and procedures which translate into more revenue for such institutions.

Now, while I am prepared to sacrifice my hard-earned living for the benefit of my fellow compatriots, I feel there need to be assurances that my contributions will serve the purpose they are meant for.

We are told that the office of health standards compliance, a watchdog, will be established by an act of Parliament to ensure that the National Health Insurance delivers on its mandate.

I hope the health insurance will improve conditions so no South African will dread admission or treatment at a public hospital or wish they were a rich man’s dog.

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