Argentine clinics struggle despite COVID-19 crisis

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — As COVID-19 deaths climb to new peaks in Argentina, the intensive care unit at the San Andres clinic in the capital is oddly silent.

The beds are empty. The monitors for the respirators are still in their factory wrappings. Cabinets stand full of unused medicines and syringes. It’s been that way for weeks now, even as other hospitals fill to capacity.

While the pandemic has swelled the need for hospital beds, many private clinics say they’re struggling to survive. The pandemic has pushed away many non-COVID patients and the hospitals say they are losing money on coronavirus sufferers because the government insurance program doesn’t pay enough to meet costs.

It’s a problem that private hospitals have had in many parts of the world, including the United States, due to forced cancellation of more profitable elective treatments to focus on COVID-19 emergencies.

About 10 private clinics in the greater Buenos Aires area have closed over the past year due to financial problems, eliminating capacity for 700 patients, according to an association of private clinics.

Meanwhile, COVID deaths in Argentina topped 660 on Wednesday — the highest yet in the pandemic — and hospital occupancy rates of 90%.

The closure of San Andres itself was precipitated by the death of the hospital’s director and owner of COVID-19 at the start of the year. As courts began determining who should inherit, the potential heirs apparently were unwilling to step into an operation running at a loss.

“They don’t want to continue with this open. They told us, ‘The only thing we are inheriting are debts,’” said Alicia Rey, the chief of surgical services and a representative of the clinic’s workers

Amid the legal uncertainty, the 144 workers were informally let go — collecting a final paycheck in December — but without being officially dismissed, making it difficult for them to get unemployment benefits.

Since then, the workers have been occupying the clinic, hoping to get it somehow started again, perhaps with new owners.

“It’s a shame they don’t give us the chance to open the doors and be able to help in this pandemic,” Rey said. “It isn’t only the source of work; I’m talking about being able to help save lives.”

Private clinics have been complaining for years about being unprofitable, and Argentina’s steadily rising prices have aggravated the problem, said Guillermo Barreiro, administrator of a clinic and member of the hospital chamber. “The problem is not the lack of patients. For our sector, inflation is the worst of the ills.”

He said overall costs for hospitals rose 36% last year . And prices for drugs needed for COVID-19 patients, being in short supply, soared by more than 1,000% in at least one case. Payments from state insurance systems have risen more slowly.

A study by the Jose de San Martin Hospital found that hospitals’ costs for COVID-19 patients are about $900 to $1,200 a day, while the state insurance system payment is capped at $1,000.

Jorge Cherro, president of Argentina’s Association of Clinics, Sanatoriums and Private Hospitals, said it can also take months to get paid by the insurers, even as prices continue to rise.

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