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VATICAN LETTER Aug-15-2008 (770 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Whistle while you wait: Vatican employees have heavenly health system

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A Vatican employee who regularly stands in line for 15 or 20 minutes at the Vatican pharmacy said, "I whistle while I wait."

The monsignor knows that when he gets to the counter to collect his prescriptions, the cost will be the equivalent of 75 cents for each of the drugs his Vatican doctor ordered.

He comes from a country with socialized medicine and said the Vatican's health service "is what we were striving for."

"It's much faster, it's much less expensive and it's the most thorough medical care I've ever had," he said.

The doctors' office along with a laboratory, a walk-in clinic and first-aid stations are all located inside the Vatican.

The pope is covered by the health system, but usually his doctors make house calls. Unless they are sick, cardinals and bishops go to the clinic, but their waiting room is separate from the one for lay employees and priests.

Dr. Giovanni Rocchi directs the Vatican's Department of Health and Hygiene, which includes the Vatican Health Assistance Fund.

In an early August interview with the Vatican newspaper, Rocchi said the health service is staffed by 16 full-time physicians, 11 doctors who work on contract and another 21 who help out when needed. In addition, there are 51 specialists who regularly see patients at the Vatican clinic.

The doctor said about 15,000 people have a right to Vatican health care: employees, their children until they are 18 or have finished college, spouses who are not employed outside the home and Vatican retirees.

In addition, the physicians, nurses and paramedics on duty 24 hours a day provide first aid to any visitor who has an accident or requests help while on Vatican territory.

In 2007, the health service handled about 80,000 doctors' visits -- both by appointment and in the drop-in clinic, Rocchi told L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. And, he said, more than 200,000 laboratory tests, X-rays and diagnostic procedures were performed.

Passionist Father Ciro Benedettini, vice director of the Vatican press office, said the Vatican spent $21.1 million on employee health care in 2007; according to Vatican budget figures published in July, that amounts to about 7.3 percent of the total figure the Vatican spends on salaries, pensions and benefits.

On the condition of anonymity, several employees who use the service spoke to Catholic News Service about their experiences.

The employees -- both laypeople and clergy -- contribute 2 percent of their salary to the health fund each month, which is their only contribution for visits to their general-care physician, specialists they are referred to and any eventual hospitalizations or procedures.

"There is no co-pay, zero," said an American employee who had to have oral surgery under general anesthesia nine months ago. "It cost me zero."

The only cost besides the monthly contribution is the 75 cents employees are charged for each prescription, laboratory test, x-ray or ultrasound.

Another employee, who is married with children, seemed surprised when asked if his 2 percent deduction covered just him or his whole family; the Vatican would not charge someone more for being married with children, he said.

"Without a doubt it is better than the Italian system," he said. "They have the best Italian doctors and specialists; it's prestigious to work for the Vatican. Plus, income from the Vatican is not taxed in Italy."

The Vatican newspaper article's very first words about the health service focused on the fact that it does not have the waiting list that has plagued the Italian national health system for years.

After the quality of care, the ease of getting an appointment was mentioned by all the employees CNS interviewed.

The real bonus, though, is that the quick response also occurs when a Vatican patient is referred to a specialist, clinic or hospital in Rome.

"I was having back problems and had to have an MRI. When I called the clinic I was referred to, they said, 'You can come in this afternoon,'" said one employee.

When he was leaving the clinic, he said, "The receptionist said, 'That will be 680 euros (US$1,000).' I told her I was covered by the Vatican" and went home without paying anything.

Another employee who was asked if his co-workers ever complain about the Vatican health service said, "Oooooh, of course."

But the whistling monsignor said fewer and fewer of his non-Italian colleagues now recommend going home for better medical care if they are really sick.

Twenty years ago, U.S. citizens in Rome would refer each other to "Dr. TWA," the now-defunct airline, which had a direct flight to New York.


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