Many know Italy to have one of the best healthcare systems in the world, with the sixth-highest life expectancy, and a low rate of preventable and treatable deaths. Everyone benefits from high-quality care and the Italian government takes measures to ensure the most vulnerable populations receive care. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Italy hard which overwhelmed the hospitals and will have lasting damage on the low-income population. Here is some information about how healthcare in Italy works for vulnerable populations.
Everyone Has Access
Healthcare in Italy is universal, meaning that while private insurance options are available, everyone qualifies for public healthcare coverage regardless of income. This covers hospital visits, preventative treatment, medications, pediatrics and all necessary medical procedures for free or a small copay. One drawback is long waiting times to receive services. Italy has greater disparities in healthcare quality between regions and income classes than the rest of the European Union, but even so, less than 6% of low-income residents have any trouble accessing services.
Mental Healthcare sets an Example for the World
In 1978, Italy passed legislation expanding mental health services. The city of Trieste replaced its 1,200-bed mental health hospital with a network of person-centered care facilities, including:
- Four Community Mental Health Centers housing four to eight residents each.
- One General Hospital Psychiatric Unit with six beds for short-term emergency stays.
- The Habilitation and Residential Service, a network of voluntary communal housing with 45 beds that works with NGOs and provides various levels of supervision and services to residents based on their needs.
Instead of just treating a mental illness, the mental healthcare system in Trieste works to integrate patients into the community so they can lead fulfilling lifestyles. Instead of police, trained psychiatrists respond to mental health emergencies. In 2017, a group of Los Angeles County officials traveled to Trieste to find that it had eliminated the need for involuntary psychiatric care, there was no mentally ill homeless population and jails were not overcrowded with those needing mental health treatment. By investing in person-centered care, Trieste was able to reduce social injustices and bring vulnerable groups back into the community.
Refugees Qualify for Healthcare
Immediately upon arrival, asylum seekers receive access to public healthcare in Italy. Some difficulties can occur in receiving care, such as language barriers or legal processes delaying healthcare qualification by several months.
Many asylum seekers are torture survivors or deal with other trauma and can be eligible for specific mental health treatments. Redattore Sociale is a Doctors Without Borders project in Rome that has dedicated itself to ensuring torture survivors from all around the world receive the comprehensive psychiatric care they need.
Italy had an early spike in COVID-19 cases which overwhelmed the healthcare system. Italy has the fifth-highest coronavirus deaths per capita worldwide.
The situation is especially bleak in nursing homes, where the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that half of all Italy’s COVID-19 deaths have taken place. The country’s failure to properly test, distribute personal protective equipment, isolate residents and staff experiencing symptoms and openly report infection statistics have caused high death tallies and led to lawsuits against many nursing homes by relatives and other concerned parties.
The pandemic has also hit the economy hard, with low-income families suffering the most. Lack of support from the government has forced those who lost their source of income to turn to organizations such as the European Food Bank Federation, founded in 1967, which distributes 4.2 million meals every single day through a network of charities.
Although the economy may not fully recover, COVID-19 cases have been dropping steadily since late November 2020, and with doctors starting to administer vaccinations, there is hope for the future.
Though people usually consider healthcare in Italy to be high-quality in how it provides care for vulnerable groups, it was unprepared to deal with the pandemic, devastating the aging population and low-income families. Accountability for nursing homes and aid to impoverished citizens must be part of the plan going forward, as well as more efficient central planning to deal with future emergencies.
– Elise Brehob