By Anthony Esposito and Diego Oré
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s hospitals are reeling under steep budget cuts by the country’s new government, with surgery delays for children, reductions in testing and staffing shortages, hospital directors said on Friday, fanning anger over President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s austerity measures.
In its first budget in December, the government slashed the budget from several ministries as it sought to centralize spending and fight public sector corruption. It was also eager to honor a campaign pledge to run a tight budget.
Other services hit by the cuts include immigration and shelters for victims of domestic violence.
The Federico Gomez public children’s hospital in the Doctores neighborhood of Mexico City will have to cut its supply of anesthesia and nitric oxide by half as of June 1, according to a document from at least 11 public health institutions that was presented to lawmakers and seen by Reuters on Friday.
“We’ve already had to cancel some surgeries,” said Jaime Nieto, director of the Federico Gomez hospital, adding that surgical operations would be delayed by 50% and some 180 outsourced nurses and technical staff had been laid off.
“We’re preparing to reduce anesthesia and special tests because we won’t be able to pay for them,” added Nieto, a pediatric surgeon.
Nitric oxide is used to save the lives of newborn babies with pulmonary hypertension, the document said.
Without a quick reversal of the cuts, hospitals will face restrictions on transplants, equipment failures and staff shortages, according to the document. Many of the budget cuts appeared to be aimed at limiting outsourcing and hiring of third parties to deliver services.
On Thursday, Lopez Obrador admitted there was a problem with the supply of medicines, but said it was “worse before” and that difficulties had arisen because he was lifting the lid on corruption in the health sector.
The Finance Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
While Mexico’s public health system suffered from funding problems before Lopez Obrador took office, the level of shortages appears to have grown more acute.
German Martinez, the head of Mexico’s IMSS social security institute, the largest public health service in the country, stepped down on Tuesday in one of the first major resignations in Lopez Obrador’s administration. In his resignation letter, Martinez blamed the Finance Ministry for pressure on the IMSS to make savings and cut staff.
WORST IN 40 YEARS
A nurse at Federico Gomez, Ines Hernandez, complained on Friday about a lack of medicines and surgical supplies and said garbage is being disposed of only once per day now.
“I’ve been here nearly 40 years and it’s the first time I see this happening,” Hernandez said.
At an entrance to the hospital where workers had hung a banner “apologizing for deficiencies in patient care due to cuts in personnel and supplies,” Ana Maria Arias said the funding squeeze put at risk the life of her 5-year-old grandson, who has been hospitalized for 24 days due to an epileptic seizure.
“There aren’t enough nurses for the number of kids. … There are medicines my grandson needs and they don’t have them here. We had to go elsewhere to buy them,” said Arias, 48.
She accused Lopez Obrador of not knowing how to govern. “Everything is getting out of hand,” she said. “It’s fine to be looking for austerity, but it must not kill people.”
The brewing crisis dominated the headlines of several top Mexican newspapers on Friday. El Universal said hospitals had “money for two months” while El Economista said pharma companies were “sending out an SOS for payments.”
Asked in his regular news conference what he knew about doctors and nurses being fired, Lopez Obrador blamed the media.
“Nobody is being fired, nobody,” the president said. “It’s propaganda to hurt us. You know how it is in the underworld of journalism – not everyone obviously, not everyone, no, no, no – but in the underworld of journalism, slander is used a lot so that if you’re not stained, you’re tarnished.”
(Reporting by Anthony Esposito and Diego Ore; Additional reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Leslie Adler)