Poland wants more babies, hospitals can’t cope
Heavily pregnant Karolina Mrowiec went to a Polish hospital in an advanced stage of labor and was surprised when the nurse asked her what was wrong.
“I am having a baby. Isn’t it obvious?” she replied.
Her story shows how an overstretched hospital system is struggling as Poland experiences its first baby boom in years.
The government is campaigning to encourage families to have more children, but as children born in the 1980s boom reach fertility, they are straining a system which constitutionally must provide free services to all Poles.
Healthcare has been slow to reform since the end of communism in 1989, and the hospitals’ grim state is adding to the difficulties of giving birth.
Since 2004, more people have been born than died each year in this predominantly Catholic nation, although emigration by Poles seeking work means the population of around 38 million is still shrinking.
Worried at the falling numbers, the government has led a campaign to persuade Polish women to have more babies to “save the nation from disappearing”, as some politicians have said.
But Poland’s economic boom of late has not led to major improvements in the state’s healthcare system and it is poorly placed to deal with a big increase in demand on any front.
When Mrowiec, 27, went into labor, she first made her way to a hospital she had previously chosen as suitable.
“It was the only one I was not scared of. I had met the staff and I was impressed with the conditions there,” she said.
But it was full and she was sent away. After a frantic search, her partner got her a place at a hospital in a suburb of Warsaw, where she complains that the care she got was far below standard. The baby was born without major complications.
“We know numerous cases of women who were seriously neglected and not cared for properly when in labor,” Anna Otffinowska, head of the Foundation for Childbirth with Dignity, told Reuters.
Pregnant women are often sent away because the hospitals have already spent the budget for births, she said.
Such financing limits were introduced this year despite the pro-family policies of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who rules with the help of the nationalist and traditionalist League of Polish Families (LPR).
Hospitals get a pool of money from the state-run health fund to offer services and once the money is gone, the hospital has no other recourse but to cut back services.
Women’s organizations advise couples planning babies to try to make sure they are born before the last quarter of the year, when budgets are notoriously tight.
“The fund is giving me 5 percent less cash for 2007 than the year before and we estimate that we may face around 30 percent more births than in 2006,” said Bogdan Chazan, director of Warsaw’s Holy Family maternity hospital.
Andrzej Troszynski, National Health Fund spokesman, told Reuters there were no limits on funding births.
“It is true that we have changed the way these services are financed as a part of the government program, but every additional birth will be financed by the fund,” he said.
But hospitals are skeptical.
“I did not get any indication from the health fund that it will pay for my ‘above-limit’ births,” Chazan said.
To help the already stretched healthcare system, hospitals offer some services for additional fees and the government turns a blind eye on this practice.
In maternity hospitals it has become normal to charge women about 700 zlotys ($240) for painkillers during childbirth and some 900 zlotys for nursing care—more than the equivalent of the minimum monthly wage.
But the difficulties have not discouraged the government from pushing its campaign for more births.
One traditionalist party in the ruling coalition wants to encourage more women to stay at home to have children and is also lobbying for a total ban on abortion in Poland, which already has some of the toughest regulations in Europe.
“The politicians think that forcing women to give birth to all children—healthy, sick, wanted and unplanned—will increase the natural growth,” said Monika Rejer, a midwife in a maternity hospital.
“On the contrary, what they are doing is really discouraging women from having babies at all and, certainly given these conditions, in hospitals.”
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