206712 5/13/2009 7:56 09BUCHAREST315 Embassy Bucharest UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY 08BUCHAREST607 VZCZCXRO2928 PP RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDBU RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLN RUEHLZ RUEHNP RUEHPOD RUEHROV RUEHSK RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG DE RUEHBM #0315/01 1330756 ZNR UUUUU ZZH P 130756Z MAY 09 FM AMEMBASSY BUCHAREST TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9498 INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE PRIORITY RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY RUEAUSA/DEPT OF HHS WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY RUEHPH/CDC ATLANTA GA PRIORITY UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BUCHAREST 000315
STATE FOR EUR/CE ASCHEIBE STATE PLEASE PASS TO USTDA JMERRIMAN
E.O. 12958: N/A TAGS: ECON, EINV, TBIO, PGOV, SOCI, AMED, KHIV, RO SUBJECT: ROMANIA: HEALTHCARE REFORM ON THE AGENDA FOR 2009
REF: 08 BUCHAREST 607 and previous
Sensitive But Unclassified; not for Internet distribution.
1. (SBU) Summary: The Romanian healthcare system continues to suffer from neglect two decades after the fall of communism. Health statistics remain bleak, with the country occupying the worst position in the EU in terms of the frequency of cardiovascular disease, pulmonary diseases, diabetes, tuberculosis, mental illness, cervical and other cancers, HIV/AIDS, and infant mortality. Still, pockets of excellence exist and the current leadership at the Ministry of Health (MOH) has laid out ambitious reform plans aimed at introducing more market mechanisms into the health system. The recently-concluded financial assistance package for Romania led by the IMF will help in this regard, with the World Bank offering technical assistance targeted at healthcare. EU funds will play a role as well, but the real money will still have to come from private enterprise; hence the Ministry's avowed goal of attracting foreign investors and entrepreneurs. The proposed reforms will include devolution of authority to localities, modest co-payments for health services, and a "basic package" enumerating the health services covered by the state insurance program. Despite a professed commitment to market mechanisms, however, the MOH has yet to show that it will entirely accept private enterprise profiting from the provision of healthcare, or a complete transition from Romania's universal coverage model.
2. (U) In reftels, post in a three-part series provided an overview of healthcare in Romania. This cable updates post's prior reporting to focus on the Government of Romania's (GOR) plans since the government changeover in December 2008. One major commercial issue, pharmaceutical pricing, will be covered septel. End Summary.
3. (SBU) The new Minister of Health, Ion Bazac (MD), has limited experience in public health. Despite his medical degree he has never worked as a physician. Instead he has operated a string of successful businesses, including most recently a Ferrari dealership. Two of his top lieutenants, State Secretaries (SS) Liviu Manaila and Aurel Nechita (MD), do have relevant prior government and healthcare experience. SS Manaila previously worked with the World Bank implementing healthcare projects, while SS Nechita is reprising the role he held in a previous PSD government. Minister Bazac's business background appears to have helped make the Ministry more willing to try to use market mechanisms to raise capital and push through needed reforms.
4. (SBU) The latest catalyst for change was a tragic incident at the beginning of the year that seemed to have been lifted directly from the internationally recognized Romanian film "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu." In the incident, as in the film, an elderly man was brought to a public hospital emergency room (in this case in Slatina), only to be left to suffer and die in the hallway, in part due to his inability to offer a "gratuity payment" to the attending physicians. This widely-reported incident appears to have helped spur the Minister to action and encouraged him to recognize the need for reform, beginning with emergency services. (Comment: According to MOH official Raed Arafat, the lack of standardized medical protocols for emergency room care is a key weakness in the Romanian medical system, an indictment shared by other outside observers. The lack of protocols likely contributed to this death. End Comment.)
5. (SBU) The central part of the Minister's reform strategy is to remove the MOH from direct supervision of hospitals, placing these under the authority of local councils. The Minister and his deputies believe that once local authorities are forced to bear the cost of running hospitals, they will look to rationalize operations and be motivated to invest the funds necessary to service the local population. Under the current system, localities lobby the central government to build and operate hospitals--currently 471 throughout Romania-- meaning that they tend to be located close to the politically connected, not where they are necessarily needed. The fact that localities have no ownership stake in the hospitals also means that they are unwilling to invest in improvements, preferring to lobby for more resources from the national budget. The result is predictable: hospitals and other healthcare facilities are uniformly substandard and all receive fewer resources than necessary.
6. (SBU) The cash-strapped MOH recognizes, at least in principle, that the Government will not be able to invest sufficient resources in the health system to significantly improve quality of care without partnering with the private sector. Both in private meetings and public statements, officials have highlighted the need for public-private partnerships to operate hospitals and promote investment. In the Ministry's strategic vision, it will encourage
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localities to partner with businesses and outsource the building and management of healthcare facilities. What is missing from this vision, however, is a transparent cost structure which would entice private operators to put up the substantial investments needed to yank communist-era healthcare facilities into the twenty-first century.
7. (SBU) One criticism of the current "universal care" system in Romania is that it fails to capture or track costs associated with providing medical services. The MOH and National Insurance House have no standards showing how much a given procedure should cost or how that cost varies from facility to facility. For a business contemplating a major investment, writing a business plan becomes exceedingly difficult as long as there is no transparent guarantee from the Government as to reimbursement rates or any reflection of historical operating costs. In fact, the Minister recently used one of the only numbers available, the average cost per patient, as a pretense to dismiss 73 "underperforming" hospital directors who presided over hospitals with higher than average costs. Focusing on blunt measures such as this one could actually worsen patient outcomes by incentivizing hospitals to turn away complex cases or discharge patients before they have fully recovered.
8. (SBU) Misallocation of resources is pervasive throughout the system. High quality care and good physicians do exist, as demonstrated by some recent cases of emergency cardiac treatment provided to USG personnel, but availability is typically limited to the wealthy or well-connected. Medical equipment suffers the same fate, with anecdotal reports of expensive machines, such as MRI scanners, having usage rates well below those of western hospitals. Some of the equipment is poorly maintained, while in many other cases, hospital staff either were never properly trained to operate the high-tech devices or do not know how to interpret the data they provide, and so cannot use them as a guide to prescribe treatment. According to one World Bank study, estimated "gratuity payments" (meaning bribes) in the Romanian healthcare system total almost 500 million USD per year, the equivalent of more than two-thirds of the 2009 MOH budget of 2.25 billion RON (701.2 million USD). Given the very low official salaries for medical personnel and the theoretical absence of any limits on health services, "gratuity payments" become the method for rationing the limited care available in an otherwise overburdened system.
9. (SBU) In order to allocate resources effectively and attract private investment, the MOH must determine how much care costs. As an initial step, the Minister has promised to codify a "basic package" of health services and introduce co-payments to help rationalize care. This long-anticipated basic package will finally clarify which procedures are actually covered by the national insurance system, and will be an important first step for opening up the healthcare market to complementary insurance products and private providers. (With help from the World Bank, MOH is promising that this will be done by July 1.) The basic package will enumerate the health services provided at no cost (or with a nominal co-payment) to all individuals insured under the government system. Services outside of the basic package will be offered on a market basis.
10. (SBU) While a welcome improvement, setting up a basic package will only address half of the market at best--the services not covered by the national system. It will do nothing to force existing public facilities to compete with private providers for patients on the full spectrum of health services. Establishing a basic package of services together with published reimbursement rates would be a more useful reform, but is not being seriously considered. Reform along these lines would allow patients to shop around for the best possible care and interject competition into the system. Instead, thanks to Romania's EU obligations to provide portable medical insurance, patient care at public hospitals in other EU countries (Vienna is a popular destination) is subsidized, but care at private hospitals at home is not, leading to continued underinvestment in the local market.
11. (SBU) In terms of other public health initiatives, the Ministry's main priorities for this year include introducing mandatory cervical cancer screening (in response to the failure of the HPV vaccination campaign in the fall of 2008), as well as continuing the national programs on cardio-vascular diseases, diabetes, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and mental health. Recruiting new physicians, especially epidemiologists, represents an immediate need as there are hundreds of vacant positions in the country. As EU members with a transferable medical license, young Romanian physicians continue to exit the country in droves, threatening public health. The MOH is also updating the National Plan for Pandemic Influenza, especially relevant in light of the recent world H1N1 outbreak.
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12. (SBU) Former Ambassador Taubman set the tone for Embassy involvement prior to his departure from post in December. His interest spurred a U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) definitional mission to Romania, as well as a real push into healthcare policy by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). The new Romanian Government's (and the Embassy's) focus on the issue have helped energize AmCham's healthcare taskforce, which has seen its membership triple since January. The difficult task of coordinating the interests of so many stakeholders has led post to host a day-long healthcare strategy session for AmCham on May 13th. This session will focus business participants on identifying the top problem areas and should result in better targeting for our joint lobbying efforts.
13. (SBU) Comment. The dismal state of healthcare in Romania may finally see some improvement this year. Stakeholders are energized and it appears that the Government finally has a mandate to move forward on a reform plan. Decentralization has proceeded quickly, and World Bank pressure associated with Romania's IMF standby agreement has forced officials to pay attention to the problem. Even the usually-reluctant MOH is saying the right things about wanting to engage private investors. What is unclear is how deeply officials understand that investors need certainty, consistency, and a predictable return on capital. Until politicians signal that they are willing to accept companies profiting from providing healthcare to Romanians, investment in the system will remain low and chronic problems will go unsolved. End Comment.