Viviana has just woken up from life-saving abdominal surgery. Last night, her stomach filled with blood as a result of an infection. She was rushed into the Salvador Allende healthcare center in Caracas. The center is part of Venezuela’s Mission Barrio Adentro, which means that although she will stay in intensive care for several days, and then undergo rehabilitation therapies, she will not have to pay a cent.
Mission Barrio Adentro was set up by Venezuela’s socialist government 12 years ago to transform the public healthcare system: improving access to and quality of medical attention for the poorest people in the country, with a focus on primary care.
Since its creation, it has treated 19 million people, according to official statistics. There are now 10,000 healthcare centers nationwide.
WATCH: Barrio Adentro: Venezuela’s Healthcare Program
The director of the Salvador Allende Center, Aniceto Cabeza, explained that no one has to pay for treatment, or even present any kind of paperwork for consultations.
“We’re different because we’re open 24 hours to attend to any patient who comes. It doesn’t matter to us the social class or political tendency. No one is ever asked that here. All we do is treat patients,” Cabeza told teleSUR.
Leading us through the hospital, each door Cabeza opened revealed a different medical practice. The first was optometry, where a woman was trying to discern letters on the wall. The next led to laboratories, where new machinery had just been delivered for microbiological testing. Further on were a therapeutic gym, an occupational therapy room and various types of X-rays and scanners.
When we knocked on the door of the podiatry treatment room, a doctor was shaving skin off the feet of Saida Ramos to treat her Baker’s cyst. She has been coming to the center for a year for monthly treatments.
“A private clinic was charging me 70 thousand bolivars to operate. I came here and they have injected it, they’ve given me rehabilitation, I have done 30 sessions of rehabilitation and truly the cyst has reduced,” she said, beaming. “What they do here, they do with love.”
With its wide resources, patients from developed countries would recognize it as a standard, comprehensive health center. What makes it surprising is that in the 1990s, Venezuela had a terrible health service. The neoliberal government of President Rafael Caldera rolled back public spending and privatized public healthcare. Many treatments were out of reach for the poor and people would queue for hours to be seen at the few public providers left. In 1999, when Hugo Chavez became president, healthcare became a priority.
“Mission Barrio Adentro came about to finish with a history of bad health among the Venezuelan people. It’s one of the fundamental pillars of the public health system, which fundamentally deals with primary care for the lower classes,” junior doctor Alcides Lopez told teleSUR.
Lopez has been in Venezuela working for Barrio Adentro for 15 months in the emergency units.
Like all other doctors in the Salvador Allende hospital, he is Cuban. Barrio Adentro is a joint-program, created by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in 2003 as part of the Cuba-Venezuela Agreement, to strengthen solidarity and internationalism as well as healthcare.
“More than 32,000 health collaborators work here,” said Cabeza. “We are shared out over all the Venezuelan geography. In the most isolated places: in the Amacuro Delta, in the Amazon, in the most remote places are our doctors. Living with the community, working with the community, getting to know the health problems of the community.”
The achievements of the mission have been felt among Venezuela’s poorest. A reduction in infant mortality has been key, as has a fall in deaths from tuberculosis. Now more children than ever are being treated for heart issues, preventing serious problems from arising in the future.
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