Despite their work to reform it, leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan appear not to trust their healthcare system. Rather than seek treatment within the semi-autonomous region, some top officials there seem to prefer going abroad.
Among them are reportedly both the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani, and his political rival, the leader of the Change movement, Nawshirwan Mustafa. Both travelled abroad for medical treatment in recent weeks, making for particularly awkward timing given the year-long political deadlock between the two parties.
The KDP rarely speaks about Barzani’s health, but local media reported that he left for Europe on 24 August for eye treatment.
Ali Awni, a senior member of the party, could not confirm the treatment, but said that seeking medical care abroad is justified if similar services aren’t available at home.
“When officials travel abroad it does not mean that they do not trust their country’s health sector,” he told NIQASH. “But rather that some kind of treatment is not offered in the Kurdistan Region due to the absence of specialists and equipment.”
If the proper care can be found in Iraqi Kurdistan, going abroad for treatment constitutes “wasting people’s money,” he added.
When it was in the opposition, the Change movement used to voice similar sentiments, often criticizing the two ruling parties - the KDP and the social democratic Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK - for their lack of faith in the health sector, even for the most trivial of ailments.
But last week, Change movement leader Mustafa traveled abroad once again to have his back treated, having only just returned after spending seven months in London for medical care.
His secretary, Ismail Saleh, told NIQASH that hospitals in Iraqi Kurdistan are unable to perform the operations he requires, and that Mustafa’s doctors have advised him to travel abroad. “If you don’t trust this, you can go to our hospitals and ask them,” he said. “Mustafa went to them many times as an ordinary citizen to receive treatment and he uses the paracetamol available in the local market, but there is no cure for his illness in the Kurdistan Region.”
The other leading politician who most recently was overseas for treatment was former PUK head, Jalal Talabani, who suffered a stroke in 2012 and travelled to Germany for treatment.
The health sector in the Iraqi Kurdistan has seen progress in recent years, but the financial crisis that has plagued it since early 2014 has hobbled the health ministry, which is now in significant debt with pharmaceutical companies.
"It is so unfortunate that officials travel abroad for treatment, but this should not make people lose trust in the region’s health sector,” Khaled Qadir, the health ministry spokesperson said. “When treatment is available here, people should stay, as our health sector provides high-quality services.”
But the fact that three of the region’s most prominent politicians require treatment by foreign doctors does not reflect well on their efforts to improve its infrastructure. Nor does the fact that other officials and prominent citizens do the same.
NIQASH has learned that Ali Bapir, another prominent local politician, is also currently with his wife in Iran for medical treatment.
Iraqi Kurdish politician Zulfa Mahmoud Abdullah, who heads the regional Parliament's Committee on Health and the Environment, blamed what she described as “the mafia of the health ministry,” for the deterioration of the health sector, but didn’t name any names.
She told NIQASH that, “these people have destroyed the health system and it is for this reason that they do not trust it and do not trust the quality of the services it provides.”
People lose confidence in the Region’s health system when officials travel abroad for treatment, she said, adding that some do so for complaints as “small as a headache.”