RIGA - Half of Latvia's population will not be able to afford the health care they need once the government's service fee hikes are introduced next month, says a leading advocacy group.
Latvian umbrella body for disability organizations, Sustento, is planning to take their concerns about Latvia's deteriorating health care system to the European Commission.
The group, which represents 20,000 people with disabilities, is currently in talks with Brussels-based European Patients Forum (EPF), a consultancy body to the EU on issues of health care, to map out a direct action plan.
Under amendments to the health care system approved on Jan. 27, a visit to a general practitioner will cost 1 lat up from 0.5 lat, while a visit to other health care specialists will cost 5 lats up from 2 lats.
From March 1, hospital fees will increase from 5 lats to 12 lats.
Sustento Chairman of the Board Gunta Anca said the dramatic price increases are an unfair burden to ordinary Latvians already struggling with the devastating implications of the economic crisis.
"If we are talking about an economic crisis, then we can also talk about a social crisis. Because we will be there very soon, I'm sorry to say," Anca told The Baltic Times.
Advocacy groups believe increased healthcare costs will lead in the long term to poorer health and ultimately increased costs to the government and society as a whole.
There are also fears that Latvia could face a sharp increase in the mortality rate, alongside disability and chronic disease, as more and more people put off seeking appropriate medical attention because of economic pressures.
"We believe the number of people waiting to see a doctor until the very last moment, because they are not able to afford it, is really going to rise," said Anca.
"But I think the worst situation will come in May when people really start to understand. I think this will be the worst time in Latvia both for the social situation and for health care," she said.
President Valdis Zatlers, himself a former doctor, had previously spoken of the difficulties in balancing effective economic strategy with social needs.
Healthcare currently remains under the jurisdiction of individual EU member states and the European Commission has no mandate to enforce minimum standards.
Nonetheless, Anca said Latvia's health care system continued to lag behind many European countries and was the worst performing among the Baltic States.
Health Minister Ivars Eglitis said the decision to raise healthcare costs was among the most significant taken in the last decade.
However, Eglitis said budgetary restraints meant the ministry's hands were tied.
"We do acknowledge very well what [kind of] effect this decision can leave. Unfortunately our budget situation and the decrease for health care, one fifth of last year's budget, did not leave any alternative for us," Eglitis said in a statement to TBT.
Eglitis said a number of key measures would help ease the social burden of healthcare hikes.
Children under the age of 18, pregnant women, TB patients, mentally ill persons, and the severely disabled will remain exempt from patient contributions.
People living below the poverty line will not be required to pay more than 50 percent of their medical costs.
Eglitis also said there were plans to develop a nursing home on hospital grounds, where elderly patients will be able to receive treatment at reduced cost.
The existing co-payment scheme will also remain in place, whereby patients with particular diagnoses are compensated for associated medical costs.
Eglitis said his ministry would continue to champion the broader distribution of cheaper, generic drug brands, which would help to reduce co-payment drug expenses.
However, Anca said the government's measures would do little to help stem the brewing crisis facing Latvia's healthcare services.
EPF director Nicola Bedlington said the organization shared the concerns raised by Sustento.
She said it was vital that health care should not be sacrificed as part of economic policy and reform.
Bedlington told TBT that the Latvian government, which recently accepted a 7 billion euro rescue package from international donors, had a moral obligation to maintain fair and equitable health care services for its citizens.
"Healthcare budgets must be preserved during times of crisis, to ensure a healthy population to support economic recovery," Bedlington said.
"We recommend strongly that this principle underpins the implementation of the stability package agreed by IMF and the EU and are calling for strong leadership in this regard both in Latvia and at [the] EU level," she said.
The EPF is an umbrella body of patients' organizations across the European Union working toward patient-centered equitable healthcare. The organization collectively represents 150 million European patients through its membership base.