In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which struck in 2017, Puerto Rico’s public health care system was inundated with people in need.
Currently,It is expected to add to the health care crisis on the island. About half of the island’s population depends on the public health care system. Local officials say federal funding gaps have led to staff shortages and long waiting times for patients.
Experts say Hurricane Maria exposed an already deteriorating system.
“If you ask all the players within the health care system, patients, providers, administrators, they will all agree… Maria showed you what is happening, but the system collapsed before that,” said Nelson Varas-Diaz. Researcher at Florida International University supervising studies assessing the state of health care on the island.
Varas Diaz points to religion as the reason for the collapse.
“The collapse is mainly caused by debt, the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, and the historical privatization of the health care system there. Our research shows that patients wait six to eight months to get an appointment with a specialist. If that’s not a sign of collapse, I don’t know what is,” Varas Diaz said.
Dr. Edgar Dominic Fagundo, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in Ponce, Puerto Rico, was seeing 30 patients a day when he started exercising in 1999. More than two decades later, that number had nearly doubled.
“The rate I see is 50 to 60 patients a day every time I’m in the clinic,” Fagundo said.
His schedule is so busy that he can’t see any new patients until March 2023. He said the delay could have life-threatening effects on people.
“The longer people wait, the later their diagnosis is delayed. So things like cancer and other diseases, you want to treat them early so that patients have a better chance of being cured,” Fagundo said.
Dr. Carlos Melado, who became Puerto Rico’s health minister a year ago, said there are only 17 neurosurgeons in Puerto Rico — for a population of 3.2 million people.
Nicole Damiani’s husband, Carlos Rivera, was taken to hospital earlier this month after he fell to the ground and had an epileptic fit. He had to wait eight days before seeing a neurosurgeon. Carlos had a hemorrhage and swelling in his brain.
“It’s really hard to find a neurosurgeon here in Puerto Rico,” he said. “I got to a point where I gave up modestly on life.”
One of the reasons it’s so difficult for Carlos to get medical care is that many Puerto Rican doctors are relocating to Florida, where wages are much better.
Registered nurse Gilliam Elias, who has worked as a nurse at Centro Médico de Puerto Rico for 19 years, rides her son’s bike to work because she can’t buy a car. She said her bi-weekly check is about $891 and that it’s not enough for her family to live on.
Even those who are just going into the field say they are concerned about the future of health care in Puerto Rico.
“We look at the conditions around us, the things that doctors, our professors, family members who might be in medicine tell us. We constantly hear about the problems facing the island. And in just three years, we may have to,” said Carlo Bosques, a second-year medical student at college. Medicine: “Make that fateful decision where we stay or leave, which is not entirely under our control.”