Lebanese patients, exhausted by the economic crisis and inflated medical costs, had to face yet another hardship Monday, further hindering their access to medical care.
Short of cash due to banking restrictions on withdrawals, private hospitals unexpectedly decided to request that patients pay cash for the drugs they were given during their stay in hospitals.
Announced Monday morning, the decision was quickly repealed the same day after the Central Bank agreed to raise the ceiling of Lebanese lira cash withdrawals for hospitals.
“Following the BDL decision, we canceled the measure obliging patients to pay for medicines in cash during their hospital stay,” the head of Lebanon's private hospitals' syndicate, Sleiman Haroun, told L’Orient-Le Jour.
Faced with the outcry over the private hospitals’ unilateral measure, a “temporary solution” was adopted Monday, following a meeting between caretaker Health Minister Firas Abiad, and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati.
“The Prime Minister contacted the BDL governor [Riad Salameh], and we were able to reach [an agreement] whereby banks would increase the limit of cash withdrawals for hospitals,” Abiad said at the end of the meeting.
“This remains a temporary solution, pending larger scale meetings of the finance minister with [Parliament’s health] committee. In the meantime, patients will no longer be forced to pay for medicines in cash at hospitals, in the hope to find permanent solutions soon,” he added.
Abiad did not specify the timeframe of this “temporary solution.”
It remains unknown whether all hospitals complied with the ministry’s decision on Monday or whether some continued to bill and collect cash from patients for medication.
Suppliers not accepting checks
What exactly happened Monday to cause this predicament?
“Recently, health institutions were only allowed to withdraw a monthly sum of LL60 billion from the bank. However, since the exacerbation of the economic crisis, most suppliers have not been accepting checks, demanding to be paid in cash,” Haroun explained, justifying the hospitals’ Monday policy change.
Thanks to Monday’s agreement with BDL, “hospitals will now be able to withdraw LL130 billion per month, until further notice,” he added.
Haroun said hospitals had initially “asked to be able to withdraw LL200 billion per month, half of which would be used to pay staff salaries and the other half to pay bills.”
“Unfortunately, we were not allowed to get that amount,” he added, pointing out that the cancellation of the measure took effect immediately after Mikati’s statement.
Last March, many private hospitals adopted a billing system based on the parallel market lira-to-dollar exchange rate.
On Jan. 19, the lira hit an all-time low, trading at LL50,000 to the US dollar. The national currency continues its downward spiral, hitting a new record low Monday, trading at LL52,000 to the greenback, according to several exchange rate applications.
For their part,health insurers are now asking to be paid in “fresh” dollars, in full or in part — a situation that may hinder the access of many Lebanese to health care.
This story was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour, translated by Sahar Ghoussoub