By Andria Kades
When 80-year-old Frixos Yiakoumis noticed that his vision was beginning to deteriorate in his right eye he sensibly visited a doctor. After a check up confirmed he had a cataract he was duly informed that the simple procedure would cost him approximately €2,000 if done privately.
As a pensioner on a low income, Yiakoumis is entitled to free healthcare from the state and so this week he called to book an appointment at the hospital.
He was told the next available appointment was in June 2016. This was not for the surgery, but just to see a specialist.
“I’m 80! If I have to wait a year for an appointment and then wait another year for the surgery, I’ll probably be dead by the time it’s my turn,” he told the Sunday Mail.
“All I keep hearing is the word ‘unfortunately’, Unfortunately, they can’t do this. Unfortunately they can’t do the other. What can they actually do?
“I’ll tell you what one fortunate thing is. It’s that it’s only one eye that has the problem and not both.”
Yiakoumis has learned the hard way that conditions such as cataracts, hernias and knee replacements are the most problematic in terms of waiting lists in the state sector. Unfortunately, cases such as Yiakoumis’ are not classed as urgent, said Medical Services representative, Charalambos Charilaou.
“Waiting lists are plaguing the health sector and have caused distortions to the provision of services,” he added.
In what has now become a familiar refrain, he cited the financial crisis as a cause. Patients can no longer afford to go to the private sector for treatment and are turning to the state for help. Charilaou said that between 80 and 85 per cent of the population is now demanding state healthcare and the authorities are struggling to cope. The state sector only has the capacity to help 50 per cent of the population.
Meanwhile it was announced this week that the introduction of the national health system has been pushed back yet again. Health Minister Philippos Patsalis on Thursday said the starting date of the first phase is now January 2017. Only a few months ago it was supposed to be 2016. The organisation of health insurance, the organisational cornerstone of the planned NHS, has been in existence since 2006.
Yiakoumis still works as a part time messenger for a business in Nicosia. His job involves driving a moped, a task for which good eye sight is essential. He cannot understand why his condition is not considered urgent. He cannot afford to pay privately for the operation and is in any case entitled to free healthcare.
The signs of an overloaded system are everywhere. Thirty-four-year-old Marianna Myrianthou was told she was “lucky” back in March when she managed to book a Pap test at the Makarios hospital in Nicosia for September, seven months later. She was told the usual waiting list was 10 months.
“The lady told me she squeezed me in because there was a cancellation and I was extremely lucky,” she said.
“I was expecting something like two months at most.”
Long waiting lists are often compounded by lack of communication. Stella Michail waited four months to see a gastroenterologist at the Limassol General Hospital and on arrival was told the doctor no longer worked there so her appointment had been cancelled.
“Why did no one tell me? Why could no one inform me?” she fumed, explaining that not only had she gone through the trouble of rearranging her day and getting time off work for nothing, but a new appointment would have to be booked with another four month wait.
She gave up and went to a private doctor.
Charilaou said new procedures which could be introduced within weeks should combat some of the more pressing cases.
The health ministry has called for tenders to buy services from the private sector using a method of co-payments. This would mean that patients on waiting lists for more than six months for cases involving cataracts, hernias, knee replacements, ulcer diagnosis, MRI and CT scans for emergencies can go to the private sector and have an amount of their bill subsidised by the government.
Currently with the tender board, the tenders are expected to be approved within one or a maximum of two weeks, Charilaou said.
Though this is expected to ease the load, Yiakoumis questions the purpose of his medical card entitling him to free care if he still has to finance the surgery.
“It looks like I have no other option but to wait for the hospital appointment,” he said resignedly,
But those in the know can find ways around the long wait.
Thekla Themistokleous, a 61-year-old woman who faced a nine-month wait for her cataract appointment did not let the matter rest. After sending an official letter of complaint to the ministry’s permanent secretary, her case was reviewed and her appointment was pushed forward by six months.
“See? When you push them, you get to see the doctor in three months as opposed to nine. Why don’t they tell people that they can send a letter and this might help their case? They don’t want to have to deal with all of them, that’s why.”