By Frank Bajak and Paisley Dodds
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti–The United Nations has warned that it will cut off shipments of free medicine beginning immediately to any Haitian hospitals that it finds are charging patients.
When the catastrophic earthquake struck Jan. 12, authorities immediately decided to make all medical care free. More than 200 international medical relief groups have sent in teams to help, and millions of dollars of donated medicine has been flown in.
U.N. officials told The Associated Press that about a dozen hospitals , both public and private , have begun charging patients for medicine. The officials said they could not immediately provide the names of the hospitals but said they were in several parts of the country, including Port-au-Prince.
“The money is huge,’’ said Christophe Rerat of the Pan American Health Organization, the U.N. health agency in the region. He said about $1 million worth of drugs have been sent from U.N. warehouses alone to Haitian hospitals in the past three weeks.
Hospitals don’t need to charge patients to pay their staff, because Haitian Health Ministry employees are getting paid with donated money, Rerat added.
Haiti now has about 90 hospitals, including public and private hospitals and field hospitals set up in the quake’s aftermath.
A member of the Haitian government commission created to deal with the medical crisis, Dr. Jean Hugues Henry, said he had no knowledge of any hospitals charging for services or medicine.
U.N. officials said beginning immediately, any hospital found levying fees for medicine will be cut off. But the U.N. would consider continuing to supply non-governmental groups working at private hospitals with drugs if those groups can make a convincing case that none of their patients are being charged.
U.N. goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie, meanwhile, was heading to Haiti to meet with earthquake victims on Tuesday after speaking with hospitalized quake survivors in the neighboring Dominican Republic.
U.N. workers and quake survivors were also keeping one eye on the sky. There’s been no significant rain since the disaster, but everyone knows that won’t last.
The rainy season in Haiti is deadly even in a good year.
Now, in a devastated capital city, the early spring rains threaten to cause landslides and bring about health problems in the makeshift camps where more than 500,000 people are living.
“Who has tents? Who has tents?’’ President Rene Preval asked South American leaders Tuesday in Ecuador, at a regional gathering on Haiti aid. “It has rained twice this week in Haiti, and we need tents urgently.’’
Rain is already falling in some parts of the country, but Haiti’s shattered capital, where most of the quake damage occurred, has been spared so far , a rarity for this time of year, when afternoon showers are common. Steady rains could come as soon as the end of the month, and hurricane season begins in June.
Workers are racing to move victims outside of flood plains and into tents. They are also trying to clear tons of debris from ravines, canals and riverbeds, so rain does not turn the survivors’ encampments into breeding grounds for disease.
“There will be health concerns,’’ said engineer Mario Nicoleau of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s office in Haiti. “The risks will be enormous.’’
Haiti’s government said it needs more money or tents if people are to be moved.
“We are going to have a big problem when the rainy season starts,’’ said Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aime.
“We don’t have $60 million to buy 100,000 tents.’’
Jeanne Marceus, 40, is camped out with hundreds of others under plastic tarps just feet from the Bois de Chene River. On one side, dozens of houses lie flattened from the quake. On the other, a dozen dwellings that slid off the mountain during 2008 rains are piled in a mound.
“Every day we look at the sky for clouds,’’ she said. “My house is gone, and now I’m wondering whether I will be swallowed by the river.’’
Hurricanes, tropical storms and floods are a constant threat in Haiti.
In 2004, some 3,000 people died in the northern city of Gonaives after Tropical Storm Jeanne. Following the storm, more than $70 million in aid was collected, but little of that was used for flood control. Gonaives flooded again in 2008, killing nearly 800 more.
Before the earthquake, aid groups were already trying to mitigate risks to flood-prone areas: Building walls to stabilize hills, installing drainage systems and working with farmers to plant crops with root systems that help hold water. Much of that work was suspended after the quake.
The No. 2 official at USAID, Anthony Chan, said the organization’s Cash for Work program has employed 6,000 Haitians, many of whom are cleaning irrigation canals in anticipation of the rain. Demolition crews and workers are piling rubble into designated places, but there’s still no long-term plan for debris disposal.
Another problem is safely removing human waste and garbage.
Justine Lesage, an Oxfam relief worker, said the group recently removed 7,000 cubic feet (200 cubic meters) of waste created by 45,000 people at one of the city’s camps in just a week.
“We’re also working very hard to make plans for relocating people, but the Haitian government’s plan for this is not clear yet,’’ she said.
Many in the camps are already complaining of illnesses. With so many people living outside and using water from buckets, doctors say malaria is on the rise. The coming rains and limited sanitation could also lead to other diseases such as dengue fever, measles and cholera.
Haiti’s government has talked of trying to relocate earthquake victims to organized camps outside the capital, but so far none has been built.
“It took me years to save enough money to build my house here,’’ Marceus said, looking at the ruins of her former home. “Despite all the dangers, I have no plans to leave.’’