Oldest Christian Hospital at the brink of Closure in Lebanon

Editor’s Note: Earlier this summer, CNEWA received two grants, including one for $925,000 from a member of the Holy Land Christians Society, to support five Catholic hospitals in Lebanon. Combined with a grant of $300,000 from a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, the grants cover salaries for 1,093 doctors and nurses over a 12-month period at Geitaoui Hospital in the heart of Beirut; the nearby Rosary Sisters Hospital; St. Joseph Hospital in Dora; Tel Chiha Hospital in Zahleh; and Bhannes Medical Center in Dahr el Sawan, near Beirut. The grants stabilize for now the institutions whose financial resources have run dangerously low since the collapse of Lebanon’s economy. Our feature on Tel Chiha Hospital is part of a five-part series profiling each of these facilities.

In 1906, the Melkite Greek Catholic bishop of Zahleh and Furzol at the time, Bishop Cyril IX Mogabgab, established Tel Chiha Hospital in Zahleh, located in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. It began as a hospital for the elderly and, in 1949, became a general hospital accredited by the Lebanese government. 

Tel Chiha Hospital is the oldest and only Christian nonprofit hospital in the region. Several other hospitals were built in recent decades, but Tel Chiha is still the hospital of reference given its long history, serving patients from across region, regardless of faith, nationality or economic class. It is unique in the area for offering patients pastoral care.

The hospital offers all specializations from pediatrics to orthopedics, endocrinology and gastroenterology. It also has a dialysis center and a maternity floor.

Since its early days, the Lebanese community abroad has played an important role in funding the hospital. In 2014, the intensive care unit and the emergency room were fully renovated. 

However, the overlapping crises in Lebanon in the past few years have severely impacted this hospital. Lebanon is living one of worst economic crises worldwide since 1850, according to the World Bank. Its currency started depreciating in 2019, from the official exchange rate of 1,500 LBP to the U.S. dollar to 30,000 to the U.S. dollar in the parallel market.

Given the devaluation, the average monthly salary of a nurse at Tel Chiha Hospital went from about $1,000 to $30. Currently, the hospital has 50 doctors and 120 nurses. Since the crisis hit, five doctors and 35 nurses joined the massive emigration wave.

This has led to an alarming scarcity in medical specialists, especially doctors in radiology and laboratory work. Currently, only three radiologists work part time in the 15 hospitals of the entire Bekaa Valley combined. 

Another sign of the depth of the crisis is the decrease in patients, as many are unable to afford a hospital visit. Before the crisis, it had a capacity of 126 beds and bed occupancy was at 80 percent. Currently, the hospital reduced its capacity to 80 beds and has a bed occupancy of below 30 percent. 

The hospital closed several services due to its inability to pay for the renewal of medical equipment. For example, the main element of the catheterization laboratory broke, and the hospital could not afford the replacement cost, estimated at about $160,000. Its MRI machinery also required repair and it could not shoulder the cost, so it is in disuse.

The $100,000 investment to adapt the hospital procedures and equipment to function and serve the population well during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as in the purchase of additional personal protective equipment and ventilators, heavily burdened the hospital budget.

The medical team also struggles to find medication and antibiotics due to the occasional and intermittent shortage of medicine on the market. 

And, similar to the rest of the population in Lebanon, the hospital faces a costly energy bill each month due to the inability of the Lebanese state to provide more than a few hours of electricity per day. The cost of running power generators at Tel Chiha Hospital to keep it functional is $100,000 monthly.

Another problem threatening the financial stability of the hospital is the inconsistency of the Ministry of Health in paying the medical bills of patients covered by public health insurance. In many cases, these bills have not been paid. Furthermore, when they are paid, the ministry uses the pre-crisis exchange rate of 1,500 LBP to the dollar. However, the hospital is obliged to purchase equipment and supplies at the parallel market rate of 30,000 LBP to the dollar. This severe gap between income and expenses is draining the hospital’s financial resources.

As a result, the hospital is operating with a significant deficit, placing it at the brink of closure.

The CNEWA grant to cover a portion of the salaries for doctors and nurses aims to provide support to the medical team and retain this necessary workforce in Lebanon.

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