Cutting cancer care: An unhealthy decision

The government’s move to cut back on cancer care to save money is yet another slap in the face for everyday Jordanians, many of whom are already struggling under a controversial austerity program.

By Osama Al Sharif

As if the recently approved ending of bread subsidies wasn’t enough to infuriate everyday Jordanians, the government has decided to reduce the number of patients that get referred to state funded treatment at the King Hussein Cancer Center (KHCC). The controversial measure comes as part of the government’s austerity program.

State covered medical insurance for cancer treatment at the KHCC cost the government an estimated JD270 million last year. It’s a paltry sum considering that it’s being spent to save people’s lives. Certainly the government could have found ways to keep the exemptions without affecting its divisive austerity policy.

The government said it would continue to pay for the treatment of patients currently being treated at the KHCC. But a special medical committee is being formed that will decide where new cancer patients will be sent. Many more will likely be referred for less expensive treatment at state-funded hospitals, which lack the experience and facilities available at the KHCC.

The timing of such a dire decision is terrible. It comes in the wake of the adoption of the toughest package of price hikes in recent history. Tension is rife among Jordanians, one-third of whom are already living below the poverty line.

The government is seen as hostile and cold hearted when it comes to caring for the interests of low-income Jordanians. The middle class is suffering and has shrunk considerably in recent years. Unemployment has jumped to 18 percent from 14 percent last year and the inflation rate has risen by 3 percent between December and January.

Adding to people’s angst is the government’s inability to communicate its message. The prime minister has promised Jordanians that the economy will come out of the bottleneck by mid 2019. But many economists have doubts. Making things worse is that the IMF, which the government blames for the tough economic decisions, has come out to say that it has never recommended lifting bread subsidies or raising taxes on medicine.

Now the government wants to introduce a new Income Tax Law. It says that the new law will deal with tax evasion, which costs the Treasury billions of dinars every year. Again, middle income Jordanians who have not seen an increase in wages in years are fearful that they will end up paying more for less services.

Treatment at private hospitals costs thousands of dinars; so that’s not an option for the majority of Jordanians. That leaves the overburdened public hospitals as the only recourse. It is no secret that most government-run hospitals have less than average approval rate.

The government has promised to extend comprehensive medical insurance to cover as many Jordanians as possible. Last year it included those over 60 years into that program. But that leaves millions of Jordanians without adequate medical insurance.

With a deteriorating life style and lack of proper health system, the increase in cancer cases is estimated at 20 percent annually from the current figure of 5,400 cases each year. That means that by 2020 hospitals will be treating 20,000 cancer patients with a 16 percent mortality rate.

These are frightening figures and the government should seek ways to increase funding for the health infrastructure in general while supporting the KHCC, which was founded through generous contributions from the public. The KHCC remains one of the most advanced cancer treatment centers in the region.

Universal health insurance is a right for every citizen. Along with education and social security it provides for a stable and secure society. No person should have to suffer because he or she is unable to secure the best available treatment in the country.

When over 60 percent of the state’s budget goes to pay salaries, pensions and servicing debts, then something terribly wrong is happening. We should get our priorities right or else we stand to destroy what remains of that feeble bond between the government and its citizens.