One of Zimbabwe’s largest referral hospitals, Harare Central, has scrapped user fees for patients utilizing its opportunistic infections clinic, bringing relief to people living with HIV who have been struggling to access treatment.
The removal of the user fees follows successful lobbying by HIV/AIDS organisations and activists who have been engaging the hospital for many years now.
People living with HIV receive their anti-retroviral drugs for free at the opportunistic infections clinic but the hospital was charging them for laboratory tests required to monitor progress of treatment and related issues.
For example patients were being asked to pay $5 for CD4 cell count tests to check the strength of one’s immunity and $10 for liver function tests that are done regularly to check if the ARVS are not damaging the liver.
The hospital had maintained the user fees over the years arguing they needed to cover administrative costs.
National coordinator of the HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis Unit in the Health Ministry, Dr. Owen Mugurungi, confirmed the removal of user fees.
He hopes this will improve access to treatment for Zimbabweans. Dr. Mugurungi said government remains committed to improving the quality of lives of HIV positive Zimbabweans.
Women and AIDS Support Network communications manager Evince Mukambati applauded the government for removing user fees.
Mukambati said the removal of the user fees would certainly bring much relief to people living with HIV, most of whom are no longer productive and struggling to pay any user fees.
Deputy president of the Zimbabwe HIV/AIDS activist union, Stanley Takaona, whose organisation helped lobby for the removal of the user fees, said is elated.
Takaona says the laboratory tests that patients were being asked to pay for are an essential part of anti-retroviral therapy but without money many were foregoing the tests, risking their lives in the process.
Health advocates have for years been calling on the government to scrap user fees saying they are hindering access to health care as people struggle to access the scarce United States dollar.
User fees for pregnant women and children under five have, however, been scrapped at large referral hospitals only under the health transition fund. Activists continue to advocate for the removal of the same fees at provincial and district hospitals.
At Parirenyatwa user fees at the opportunistic infections clinic were removed two years ago following successful lobbying by HIV/AIDS organisations. Activists want the government to also scrap fees at rural hospitals saying it will improve the quality of care of people living with HIV in the communities.
About 1,2 million people are living with HIV in Zimbabwe while an estimated 600,000 are accessing treatment under the government programme in different parts of the country.