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New Iraqi Health System Will Offer Care to All

New Iraqi Health System Will Offer Care to All, Official Says

Iraq's interim Minister of Health Khudair Abbas briefs at National Press Club

By Anthony Kujawa
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- A discriminatory Iraqi health care system that serviced a select few is being transformed by the renewed Iraq Ministry of Health to ensure affordable health care regardless of ethnicity, gender, geographic origin or religious affiliation, says interim Minister of Health Khudair Abbas.

Speaking to reporters December 16 at the National Press Club in Washington, Abbas said the centralized and mismanaged health care system of Saddam Hussein excluded thousands of Iraqis.

Saddam Hussein's regime focused on militarization, intelligence and security services, not providing health care to the Iraqi people, he said. "The health issue became a side issue," for Hussein, said Abbas.

Only $16 million was allocated to the Ministry of Health in 2002, he said, and a "self-finance" or "fee for service" system implemented from 1997 put health care out of the reach of most Iraqis.

"Many Iraqis, especially those of the lower social class died, because they couldn't afford paying for hospitals or surgical operations," said Abbas.

Abbas also accused Saddam Hussein of storing medicines received through the United Nations-administered "Oil for Food" program past the expiration date, and then blaming others for the Iraqi people's suffering. Hussein "politicized" economic sanctions, said Abbas.

In response to a question on "medical atrocities" of the Hussein regime, Abbas said he has met with hundreds of mutilated Iraqis, many who had an ear cut off for refusing to serve in the army. Abbas said his ministry currently is registering such victims, taking photos and gathering medical records to document these crimes. The ministry also is making arrangements for plastic surgery specialists from Iraq and other nations to provide reconstructive surgery, he said.

Describing the case of one individual mutilated by Hussein, Abbas said: "When he met me, he started to cry and cry. He has been housebound since his ear was cut off because he cannot face his family members. He cannot face his neighbors. He cannot tolerate to go walking in the street because he thinks everybody is watching and laughing at him."

"We are going to repair the physical part, but we are not going I think to be able to relieve the psychological torment of many such patients," he said.

"Any Iraqi, whoever he is, whatever his rank, if he committed crimes, he will face justice," said Abbas.

Iraq is making sustained progress toward creating a more inclusive health care system, he said. "We would like to achieve an equitable, sustainable [and] affordable health system, which is not discriminatory by ethnic, religious or gender group," he said.

Abbas expressed gratitude to the United States and international NGOs and donors, whose assistance has enabled the Ministry of Health to provide services near the prewar levels. Currently, 240 hospitals and more than 1,200 primary health clinics are in operation, he said.

With unemployment running 50-60 percent, Abbas said, in the immediate and short term Iraq will provide free health services. The Ministry of Health budget in 2004 is $1.8 billion.

Citing children's vaccinations, infrastructure improvements and security of health care facilities among the many priorities of the ministry, Abbas said that through a "facilities protection scheme" the ministry has trained and employed over 1,300 personnel to guard health facilities, and there are plans to train 2,500 people.

According to a December 15 White House fact sheet, the Iraqi Ministry of Health now has 100,000 healthcare professionals and staff throughout the country, and has received grants to immunize its 4.2 million children under the age of five against preventable diseases such as polio, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, and tuberculosis. In addition, Abbas said the Ministry of Health has declared the 22nd of each month National Immunization Day to raise awareness about vaccinations.

In response to a question, Abbas described the Iraq Ministry of Health and the Coalition Provisional Authority as having excellent working relations. "Possibly the Ministry of Health will be the first ministry to have full sovereignty, possibly by the end of January," he said.

The previous day, Abbas, and six other Iraqi physicians met with President Bush at the White House to discuss improvements in Iraq's health services.

After the meeting, Bush told reporters that the Iraqi doctors were anxious to work with American counterparts to enhance medical education and integrate advanced technologies into Iraqi healthcare.

"We are making progress together in improving the lives of your citizens with better health care; immunization rates are up; people are getting health care," Bush said.

More information on the Iraqi Ministry of Health is available at www.cpa-iraq.org/ministries/health.html


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