Belize has a mixed health care system, with both public and private medical facilities and health insurance available. The private sector accounts for nearly half of the yearly spending on health care but the government is currently the largest provider, administering low- or no-cost care to most Belizeans. The vast majority of physicians working in Belize were trained abroad, including a large population of volunteer doctors from Cuba.
The Belize health care system compares well against other Central American countries. However, it doesn't reach North American or European standards, and the concentration of doctors is one of the lowest in the region. While physicians are well-trained and thorough, medical centers are often plagued by shortages of staff, equipment and supplies, and health care is unevenly distributed - over half of all health care personnel are in the Belize City area. Emergency services are restricted to urban areas, with the exception of an air ambulance service throughout the country. Many people in need of anything more than basic care go north into Mexico, where facilities and services are better. In response to problems with health care, the Belizean government started a major push in the early 90's to reform the health care system, which is now starting to show impressive results.
While some Central American countries are popular destinations for medical tourism, Belize isn't one of them yet. There are a few private practices that cater to tourists, and Belize's health care is generally cheaper than in the U.S. and Canada, but the idea of vacationing in Belize for medical purposes has yet to catch on.
In September 2008, the health care sector in Belize got a boost with the inauguration of the Belize Health Information System (BHIS). The BHIS is a massive, comprehensive online database for tracking patient information throughout the entire health care network. While the program is still in its infancy, it continues to grow quickly.
The Ministry of Health is the government agency in charge of overseeing and funding the public health care system, with roughly five percent of the GDP allocated to health care. Nearly three-quarters of Belize's health care workers serve in the public sector, yet staff shortages continue to be an issue. For every 1,000 Belizeans there is only one physician and 1.3 hospital beds. Hospitals are often overcrowded and under-supplied, leaving doctors with limited options when treating patients. Fortunately, most public health services in Belize are relatively affordable. Hospital stays cost around USD$7.50 per day and lab fees are in the USD$5 range. Many volunteer doctors offer their services for free and people who can't afford medical treatment are rarely turned away.
Belize's health care system is divided into four regions, Central, Western, Northern and Southern. There are eight public hospitals, including one psychiatric center, and roughly 70 public health facilities throughout the country, each serving between two and four thousand people.
Rural areas have small centers offering only basic primary care. The Southern and Northern regions each have one larger hospital which offer secondary care like X-rays, surgery and emergency services. Tertiary care is only provided at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in Belize City.
Currently, the Belize government subsidizes some medications and necessary treatments like vaccinations and emergency surgeries. Necessary medical trips to neighboring countries are partially subsidized, but can end up costing patients tens of thousands of dollars. Many people have private insurance or pay out-of-pocket for elective procedures and services.
Only a quarter of Belize's health personnel work in the private sector, yet private spending on health care is often close to public spending. Needless to say, the equipment, facilities and services are better in the private sector, but treatment isn't subsidized or covered so it costs more for the patients. The private sector is unregulated by the government and all payments are out-of-pocket or through private insurance. Though treatment is open to everyone, private health costs are prohibitive to many Belizeans and often limited to those who can afford it.
Belize's private health sector is split into for-profit and nonprofit facilities. There is one for-profit, 25 bed hospital in Belize City and a nonprofit, 16 bed hospital just outside of San Ignacio in the Cayo District. Over 50 for-profit clinics and four nonprofit clinics are spread throughout the country - though half of them are concentrated in Belize City.
Both the government and health care workers in Belize strive to maintain open cooperation and even some crossover between the public and private sectors. If a private facility is in need of equipment, they are permitted to use government facilities. About 14 percent of Belize's health care staff work in both sectors and often provide private services outside normal business hours when they work for the public during the day.
All dental procedures except tooth extractions fall in the private sector. Roughly three dozen dentists work in Belize, offering a variety of care from cleanings to braces to surgery. Prices range from around USD$35 for a filling to USD$58 for a checkup to upwards of USD$200 for a root canal. Some private insurance plans cover the costs of emergency dental care.
The only public insurance in Belize is through the Social Security Board (SSB), which anyone working in Belize is automatically eligible for and pays into. Belizeans are required to be registered with the SSB from birth and any non-nationals attempting to gain resident status, citizenship or a work permit must also register with the SSB. Registration is free and the SSB will require proof of identity, age and citizenship. Dependents must also be registered if they are legally staying in the country.
Every week, Social Security contributions are calculated from the employee's salary and are split between the employer and employee. Social Security covers medical expenses for work-related injuries or diseases as well as provides sickness, maternity or retirement benefits if one becomes unable to work. It also covers funeral costs if a death is work-related.
The government is currently rolling out a National Health Insurance (NHI) system. While only limited services are covered and only applies to a small population now, when NHI becomes fully integrated it promises to provide free health services to all residents and citizens. The program has been slowed due to unsustainable costs and many details are still unpolished, but the government is committed to developing and implementing the program as fast as possible.
The majority of available insurance is offered privately. Roughly a dozen private insurance firms can be found in Belize. Some are Belizean companies and others are subsidiaries of international firms. Most Belizeans can't afford private medical insurance, as costs can range from USD$30 to USD$200 per person per month. Group rates are sometimes available and other details, like costs, coverage and deductibles, can vary widely depending on a number of factors. Some expatriates buy Belizean insurance, others go with a firm from their home country and others prefer to take their chances and opt out of medical insurance altogether. As always, thorough research will be your greatest asset. Also, keep in mind that private insurance isn't regulated in Belize, so don't forget to read the fine print.
When receiving treatment at a health facility, you will be required to present your Social Security card if you have one. If you have private insurance, you may need to pre-approve your treatment with your insurance company. Some health facilities will still require payment before treatment regardless of your insurance situation, after which you can get reimbursed from your insurance provider. As Belize is occasionally short on specialists or equipment to treat some ailments, make sure your insurance covers medical trips to neighboring countries.
Pharmaceuticals and Pharmacies
A few pharmacies are located in Belize City, including one in Tourism Village, and you can find one or two in most major towns. Some are independently owned and operated, others are run by clinics or hospitals, sometimes in their own building. Pharmacies vary in price and inventory, though the best stocked - and most expensive - ones operate in the private sector.
All pharmaceuticals in Belize are imported from North America or Europe, so while the products might be familiar, the prices are occasionally higher than what you would usually pay, sometimes as much as an extra 25 percent. Prescriptions are often required to get medication, though some pharmacists, usually in the smaller shops, may not be so strict if you don't have one. Keep in mind that there are no regulations or quality control on medication in Belize, so make sure you buy from a reputable source.
Most pharmacists will accept prescriptions from foreign doctors. However, if you need a prescription from a local doctor, you can stop by a local clinic and tell them what you need. For a small fee, general practitioners will do a quick consultation and fill out a prescription for you.
Travelers are encouraged to have a note from their physicians describing any conditions they may have and any medicine they may require. To avoid any complications with officials, it's strongly recommended that any medication be kept in clearly labeled, original containers when traveling and entering Belize.
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