Amid Lebanon's Economic Crisis, The Country's Health Care System Is Ailing "We are collecting from every person of goodwill," says a Roman Catholic priest who started a low-cost clinic. "We are not expecting a miracle. We hope to create a place where people feel respected."
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Amid Lebanon's Economic Crisis, The Country's Health Care System Is Ailing

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Amid Lebanon's Economic Crisis, The Country's Health Care System Is Ailing

Amid Lebanon's Economic Crisis, The Country's Health Care System Is Ailing

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Medical workers have joined the wave of protests in Lebanon. They're holding sit-ins at hospitals, where they say critical drugs are running out. The country is nearly bankrupt. Protesters put the blame on corruption. NPR's Deborah Amos went to a clinic in Beirut where health care workers are struggling to treat the poor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Like so many Lebanese, father Gabrielle Khairellah has been on the frontlines of protests.

GABRIELLE KHAIRELLAH: I'm a Catholic priest. What am I doing on the front? I'm against corruption and seeking for social justice.

AMOS: But he says his more important work is here, opening this free medical clinic in the annex of a church. He convinced 30 doctors, including specialists, to see patients for a nominal fee - free, if they can't pay. He's corralled pharmacies to donate medicines.

Are you finding that more and more people just simply cannot afford their medical care?

KHAIRELLAH: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. Yes - even to eat. More and more people are not able to pay the fees - doctors' fees.

AMOS: Did you ever imagine Lebanon would come to this?

KHAIRELLAH: No. Honestly, no. The problem are so difficult, so deep. We're in denial.

AMOS: Corruption is one of those difficult problems, plus a bloated, inefficient bureaucracy unable to provide even basic services like electricity and water. Health care touches on the issues driving the protests, too. For now, this clinic is a lifeline for the patients in the waiting room, like this middle-aged woman who didn't want to give her name.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: "I was in the middle class before," she says - then vented her anger against the ruling class.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: "To hell with those leaders. They've stolen our country," she says.

Everyone here is feeling the pinch as the country runs out of money. The central bank has limited withdrawals, even for health care providers, who can't access enough currency to pay for medicines, equipment and salaries. The restrictions have led to medical shortages. It takes dollars to pay suppliers abroad. Since September, Lebanon's central bank only guarantees access to half of the dollars needed. And banks have restricted credit lines in policies, says economist Nisreen Salti, that go on behind closed doors.

NISREEN SALTI: I mean, at this point, this is just a series of executive decisions. In terms of governance, there's no precedence for this. And so this is all quite opaque.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWING WHISTLE)

AMOS: On the 100th day of the protest recently, Father Khairellah is on the streets again, deep in a flag-waving crowd.

KHAIRELLAH: To show that we care about the situation in Lebanon.

AMOS: He's arm in arm with Dr. Moiien Jammal, who heads his new clinic. The noisy demonstration is in front of the central bank. Dr. Jammal says it's the only way to pressure before drug supplies run out.

MOIIEN JAMMAL: Yes, we still have to take more pressure, maybe - protesting more and more.

AMOS: The long-term fix for Lebanon's looming health crisis requires waging war on the country's bureaucracy, says Dr. Karem Karem. He was the minister of health in the 1990s.

KAREM KAREM: The Ministry of Health is a corrupt ministry. Completely corrupt.

AMOS: What do they do?

KAREM: They have to pay bribes for everything.

AMOS: Like, if I wanted to buy, say, cancer drugs, I have to bribe somebody?

KAREM: Of course.

AMOS: Is this still going on?

KAREM: It is still going on. And you are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.

AMOS: Almost everyone in Lebanon has a story to tell about endemic corruption. But they didn't think they could do much about it until the protests began. But time is running out, says Nisreen Salti. Doctors are already warning that life-saving surgeries may soon be only available to the rich.

SALTI: Yes. Things look quite grim. People are definitely going to be less healthy. The cost of that is, long term, very hard to recover from and to correct.

AMOS: A children's center about an hour's drive from Beirut is an example of the unraveling of care. Dr. Elie Salabi, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, offers a tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

ELIE SALABI: So we're going right now in the cerebral palsy center. It was opened years ago. And you can see it's an amazing place when we go inside.

AMOS: It's about $1,000 a month per patient. The government paid about one-third of those costs. But that's dried up due to the economic crisis. And donations are down, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Vocalizing).

SALABI: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: There are 80 children in residence, a gym for daily treatments, classrooms that accommodate child-sized wheelchairs. Dr. Salabi says the center could close without additional funding.

SALABI: It's a battle against time. And they want to go on. And I don't know how they will manage.

AMOS: And donations can't keep up.

SALABI: Donation can't keep up because people will not donate anymore. If you don't have money, you don't have money to donate.

AMOS: In Lebanon, it's the most vulnerable that are likely to pay the price. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Beirut.

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