Serbian healthcare broadens transplant surgery options

04/09/2013

After strong public pressure, Serbia agreed to fund heart transplant treatments for its citizens who seek treatment abroad.

By Biljana Pekusic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 04/09/2013

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Anita Blaz [centre] will travel to Vienna for a heart transplant surgery. [Biljana Pekusic/SETimes]

Serbian citizens will be able to receive heart transplants abroad without incurring personal costs if approved by a designated committee, following a decision by the Board of Directors of the National Health Insurance Fund.

It comes after several days of public pressure from the media, institutions, NGOs and social networks to protect citizen rights, and specifically to help 12-year-old Anita Balaz, who is in urgent need of a heart and lung transplant.

Anita suffers from a severe heart weakness and restrictive cardiomyopathy. She was diagnosed a year ago and is rapidly deteriorating.

"In the evening I cannot sleep without the oxygen machine because I cannot breathe; I'm choking and afraid I'll not wake up," she told SETimes.

Her parents, Ksenija Balaz and Miodrag Bajac, lost their jobs a few years ago and had to move from Belgrade to Erdevik, Vojvodina, with the family, to live off of child allowance and social assistance.

"For years Anita has been wrongly treated for asthma, from which her lungs were damaged," Bajac told SETimes.

Doctors in Serbia are not able to perform a heart transplant, and the surgery in Europe or the US is costly.

Shortly before the state decision to publicly fund heart transplant surgeries abroad for all citizens, the health ministry claimed the effort impossible because "it is contrary to Serbian constitution."

"The Constitution of Serbia and Discrimination Act prohibits special treatment of citizens by medical diagnoses or age," Slavica Djukic Dejanovic, former Serbian health minister said.

Local media began raising funds for Anita's treatment, and pressured state institutions to change the regulations. Ombudsmen for Serbia and Vojvodina argued there was no legal obstacle for regulation modifications.

"The interpretation of the term discrimination was incorrect [in reference to the constitution of Serbia and Discrimination Act that prohibits special treatment of citizens by medical diagnoses or age], because non-discrimination does not exclude the possibility that affected children be denied medical treatment abroad," Nevena Petrusic, the Serbian commissioner for protection of equality, told SETimes.

The decision of the Board of Directors of the National Health Insurance Fund to allow the state to cover a heart transplant abroad for all patients, not just children, gives hope to Anita and her parents.

"Our child does not have much time, and this is the last moment to seek salvation at the AKH Clinic in Vienna for Anita," Balaz told SETimes.

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"Transplantation will be done collaboratively between our two countries, and will no longer be initiated by individual cases, or families of sick children; the process will be much easier and cheaper," Andreas Cuckerman, organ transplant surgeon at the Vienna's AKH clinic, said.

The decision to finance heart transplants abroad for the needy Serbian citizens received broad public approval, along with comments that it happened more for political than humanitarian reasons.

"The government agreed to ingratiate and justify itself to the citizens, because if children's treatment was really important to them, it wouldn't need so much public pressure," Mariana Lovric, a Belgrade teacher and mother of three children, told SETimes.

What do you think about the Serbian government's decision to fund transplant surgeries for citizens seeking treatment abroad? Leave a comment below.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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