By Yaseen al-Rubai in Baghdad (ICR No. 119, 01-Apr-05)
A government probe into corruption in the heathcare sector has found that bribery, nepotism and theft are rife, with the problem so serious that the health of patients is suffering.
So far investigators have come across 29 cases of theft of medicine and medical equipment in hospitals and health centres, and a number of arrests have been made.
Widespread fraud means that hospitals struggle to maintain stocks of medicines, staff are working without necessary qualifications and inflated prices have been paid for equipment and services.
The official in charge of the inquiry, Amir Batrus, said corruption in the healthcare system had been a problem under Saddam, "but the deteriorating security situation and an absence of regulation has seen it increase". He said the problem is so bad that it's restricting the provision of basic services, "Its affecting people's health."
Dr Shakir al-Ainachy, the health ministry's head of operations, said corruption was so endemic that the sector would have to be rebuilt with the help of the international community, "We need to build an infrastructure in cooperation with international experts."
But he was circumspect about the prospects of achieving a completely honest and corruption-free ministry, "We can't overcome it by 100 per cent."
Al-Ainachy confirmed that the ministry had allocated 518 million US dollars for the purchase of 831 items of medical equipment in the second half of 2004, some of which now appears to have been wasted or misappropriated.
Hospital staff are thought to be behind the theft of drugs, with much of their haul sold on to street traders who, in turn, supply people unable to get the medicines they need from doctors.
"We can only give patients half the drugs that have been allocated to them because we don't have enough," pharmacist Muhamad Abbas at the Adnan Khairulal Surgical Hospital, told IWPR. "We don't even have some varieties of drugs, such as insulin and certain antibiotics used to treat severe inflammation. That forces people to buy them outside the hospital."
Even more worrying is that the investigation discovered a roaring trade in banned drugs. "We found more than ninety pharmacies and 101 warehouses stocking medicines that are illegal and we undertook the necessary procedures against them," said Batrus.
The probe also revealed that health sector purchasers of drugs and equipment had been making money by issuing fake contracts or paying inflated prices for products and splitting the difference with the suppliers. "We found that contracts to buy scientific equipment have paid ten times the price of the equipment from the best factory," said the investigator.
Muhsin Jasim, a senior hospital official, said another big problem is the incompetence of those running the health service, "The ministry is understaffed and underqualified. We have people employed who don't have diplomas."
The corruption investigation -- which will also be looking into fraud in other government ministries - found that jobs have been handed out on the basis of tribal, party or family affiliations and that in one Baghdad health authority 620 employees had bogus qualifications.
Kareem al-Ubaidy, a senior official at the Medical City Hospital in Baghdad, said that corruption had left the medical sector in worse state than it was under the previous regime.
"The cost of maintaining the gardens of Medical City was 68 million dollars, the cost of painting the building was 150 million dollars and the cost of repairs was 18 million dollars, but when you enter the hospital you don't feel any changes from the time of Saddam's regime. On the contrary, it's getting worse. There's theft and embezzlement."
Yaseen al-Rubai is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad.