Cancer patients dig deeper to pay for treatment at the ORCI

Thursday April 7 2016

A pharmacist at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute

A pharmacist at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute prepares chemotherapy for cancer patients using a drug mixing machine which is in a poor condition. The machine, which used to serve more than 200 patients per day, lacks proper lids, and this could put health workers at risk. PHOTO | HERIETH MAKWETTA 

By Syriacus Buguzi @buguzi

Dar es Salaam. When Ms Asha Saidi was told she would need Sh800,000 to undergo chemotherapy at the Ocean Road Cancer Institute (ORCI) in Dar es Salaam, she thought for a moment that was the end of her fight against the disease.

Five years ago, the 30-year-old housewife from Lindi Region was diagnosed with cancer of the jaw.

She had travelled the eight-hour journey to the commercial city, where she had pinned her only hope of winning the battle against cancer through ‘free’ five cycles of chemotherapy at the ORCI.

“I was shocked when I got here only to be told I had to pay Sh800,000 for treatment,” she told The C itizen.

She couldn’t raise that money, but she eventually started the treatment after her relatives chipped in with contributions.

When The Citizen visited her yesterday, Asha was already undergoing her first round of treatment at the outpatient clinic. “If it were not for my relatives footing the bills at a nearby pharmacy, I would be forced to return home in Lindi without any treatment,’’ she said.

Her case is one of the many situations cancer patients find themselves in at the ORCI, the only specialised facility for cancer treatment in the country.

The national health policy stipulates that all cancer patients visiting the ORCI should access free treatment.

But the institution, one of the oldest health facilities in Tanzania, is grappling with an acute shortage of vital medications. This has forced it to charge for treatment.

Despite the existence of the policy for free treatment, the majority of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy (cancer treatment used to kill cancer cells), are paying.

The Citizen spent the greater part of yesterday camped at the ORCI, talking to some of the patients and their relatives. Most of them say they are forced to somehow pay, contrary to the policy.

OCRCI acting director, Dr Julius Mwaiselage, say they have no choice but to let most patients dig into their own pockets to purchase essential drugs at private pharmacies.

“We are grossly underfunded,” he said.

The Institute was supposed to receive about Sh7.2 billion in budget allocations for the 2015/16 financial year, for the purchase of medicines and other medical supplies.

However, it received only about Sh400 million, according to the director.

Outside the ORCI clinic yesterday, a number of patients from various parts of the country expressed their frustration over the high cost of cancer medication.

Most of them are not on health insurance. This means they have to pay cash.

Daudi Tarimo, 63, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer at Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH), was told that his malignancy was already in advanced stage, and that he needed to undergo chemotherapy at ORCI.

“I was initially told it is free to be treated here. But things are different. Doctors just write prescription forms and we have to pay for the medicine at private pharmacies,” he said.

A quick survey by this reporter at pharmacies near the ORCI revealed that there are some chemotherapy drugs that cost as high as Sh3.5 million for a patient to access a full course of treatment.

Low cost drugs such as Methotrexate and Fenesteride, are pegged at Sh20,000 per dose and it may require the patient to pay over Sh600,000 to complete the course.

The ORCI Director of Clinical Services, Dr Mark Mseti, said most of the patients fail to complete their dosages due to financial problems.

In Tanzania, such stories of agony and frustration related to high cost of treatment, as narrated by Ms Asha and Mr Tarimo, are not limited to the ORCI. Currently, only 20 per cent of Tanzanians are covered on the health insurance scheme, according data released by the Health Ministry last year. And at ORCI, only 10 per cent of the 2,500 patients, who report to the facility for treatment under health insurance schemes, are cancer patients, says the ORCI boss.