Make or break for Manila bone hospital

Distressing: A young patient at the state-run Philippine Orthopaedic Center. Sleeping underneath is her caregiver.

Paraplegic Venerando Acabal wriggles on a rust-eaten bed to soothe painful bed sores in misery, but also fearful that privatisation plans for the Philippines' only bone hospital will rob him of his refuge.

The state-run Philippine Orthopaedic Center, a cramped and dizzying maze of rickety stretchers that spill out of humid wards into dingy hallways, has treated tens of thousands of patients for free since it opened in 1945.

But it is slated to close after a private firm last year won a contract to replace it with an expanded new facility, part of a multibillion-dollar privatisation programme by the government.

"If they kick me out of here, I have no choice but to go home and die in my house," said the 55-year-old Acabal, who has been bedridden at the hospital since breaking his back in a construction site accident four years ago.

Despite wretched appearances, the hospital is much-loved by the poor as they can turn up, have complicated operations and stay for years even if they do not have any money, AFP reported.

Of the nearly 7,000 patients treated last year, only 2 per cent paid their bills in full, according to hospital records, and the facility's chief is worried the charity will be severely curbed under private management.

"It's difficult to reconcile profitability and service to the poor," hospital director Jose Brittanio Pujalte told AFP.

"Our patients here are the poorest of the poor and they have nowhere else to go."

The private operator, Megawide-World Citi, has a contract to run the hospital for 25 years from next year before handing it back to the government.

When asked about the issue, the head of the Philippines' privatisation office, Ms Cosette Canilao, said the new operators were contractually obliged to only charge full rates to 10 per cent of patients.

"There is an urgent need for us to improve the health services for the public and one way of doing that is to take private partners," said Ms Canilao, executive director of the Private-Public Partnership Center.

FINANCIAL HELP NEEDED

The hospital is undeniably in need of extra funds. A far corner of the hallway has been transformed into a ward with rusty stretchers. In another ward, a boy with a metal brace on his leg wails in pain.

Relatives watch over their loved ones, sprawled on the grimy concrete floor half-covered with chipped vinyl tiles. Some spend the night on cardboard laid out on the pavement outside the hospital building.

At the emergency room entrance, there is a chaotic but steady stream of patients arriving in wheelchairs and ambulances.

Still, 40-year-old former security guard Randy Gonzaga, who is paralysed from the waist down due to a tumour on his spine, does not want to be anywhere else.

"I hope to have my tumour removed before the new owners come in. Otherwise, I have nowhere else to go," he said.


This article was first published on June 11, 2015.
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