You could call them the legal drug runners. Such is the shortage of cancer drugs in Romania that a network of volunteers has sprung up across Europe to scour pharmacies for desperately needed medicines to send home. Alina Costache, who works for a London PR agency, is one of hundreds of Romanians living abroad who spend much of their spare time looking for chemotherapy medication.
“Recently I got a call from friends in Romania about an eight-year-old girl who was suffering from leukaemia and the right medication just couldn’t be found anywhere,” she told The Independent. “After making some calls we worked out the right drugs were sold in the UK. It was a lot of money by Romanian standards – about €3,800 – but thank God we managed to raise the money through fundraising locally in Romania.”
The lifting of EU migration quotas for Romania and Bulgaria next year has led to growing concerns that the inhabitants from some of Europe’s poorest nations will flock to Britain in order to access the NHS. In November, the Home Secretary, Theresa May, even went as far as to suggest that Romanians and Bulgarians coming to Britain without guaranteed employment could be banned from accessing our hospitals. But the idea that the NHS treats all foreign nationals without charge is as erroneous as the contention that millions of Romanians will soon flood our hospitals.
Under EU rules member states have a duty to treat emergency cases – such as those brought to A&E. Each country can then claim back the cost of that treatment from the national’s country of origin. That means if a Romanian is hit by a car in London, or a British citizen struck down in Bucharest, they will be patched up.
But for anything beyond emergency treatment EU nationals are expected to have their own health insurance and it is an offence knowingly to travel to the UK purely to seek emergency treatment.
As the cancer crisis in Romania has shown, those with dilapidated heathcare systems in the poorer European nations aren’t looking for – and indeed cannot afford – treatment abroad. Instead they struggle against the odds to look for novel ways to seek treatment at home.
There is little doubt that Romania’s hospitals are in appalling shape. Investment in healthcare has been paltry and sporadic ever since the 1989 revolution that toppled Nicolae Ceausescu, and the country has some of the worst cancer survival rates in Europe. Many Romanians grumble that the best doctors and nurses have long since left for Western Europe while “spaga” – the Romanian word for bribe – is the only way to guarantee good treatment.
The unavailable cancer drugs are not even the costly ones. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, for example, is usually treated with a cocktail of four inexpensive drugs which have a high success rate if used together at an early stage. But in Romania, only one of the four drugs is currently available.
The paucity of such medication has now become a major scandal in Romania and the government recently announced a further €800,000 (£692,000) for the state-owned pharmacy. But those involved in looking for chemotherapy drugs say the injection of money will make little difference unless corruption and bureaucratic inefficiencies are tackled.
Alin, who requested that The Independent only use his first name, runs Medicamente Lipsa, an online network that allows Romanians seeking cancer drugs to register their needs which are then passed on to fellow nationals living across Europe.
“There are also a lot of terribly sad cases,” he says. “Parents who cannot afford the drugs for their children, old people asking to pay in instalments from pensions, people who buy their medicines with really small change which shows us that they have been saving a bit every day.”
But he believes it is highly unlikely Romanians will seek treatment in the West. “I think there are already plenty of Romanians outside the country that can and often do help,” he says.
Ms Costache agrees. “I know there are concerns about EU citizens taking advantage of the NHS system here – but it seems when they do seek treatment they have to pay for it anyway,” she says. “And treatment in the UK would be a huge amount of money that most people couldn’t afford. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to take the system for a ride. Going abroad for treatment is too expensive, so people seek treatment at home but have the drugs sent from abroad.”
The relatively cheap price of healthcare in Romania might on the contrary entice British patients to head further east. Dentists from Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are already doing a roaring trade with UK patients and the Romanians could offer further price cuts. Peter Brooks, a British expat who works in the fashion industry in Bucharest, says he has already heard of Brits coming to Romania for plastic surgery. “It’s expensive for Romanians but for Brits it is much more affordable,” he says.
Boom time: Treatment in the EU
Doctors and dentists in eastern, central and southern Europe are turning their medical skills into a tourist cash crop. With 12 new states joining the EU in the past eight years, Western Europeans have flocked to countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland for medical and dental treatment that can cost up to half of what it does in Britain.
One firm has even taken to flying Hungarian dentists into UK each week to treat patients at an Oxford Circus clinic, claiming they can still be cheaper than British dentists.
While many eastern European governments encourage the expansion of health tourism, critics say it is often at the expense of their healthcare systems where rich foreigners are able to access high-class medical care while locals have to rely on poorer quality doctors in government-run hospitals.