Pakistan, which spends just Rs.360 per capita on health, squandered a whopping Rs.65 million on the overseas treatment of 18 bigwigs even though cures were available within the country at a fraction of the cost.
The money 'was enough to run a tertiary care hospital for a whole year and 13 times more than what the government was spending on prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (high blood pressure, diabetes, heart diseases and stroke), a major cause of mortality and disability in the country', Dawn reported Tuesday.
Quoting figures collected from the health ministry, it said that ever since the 10-year moratorium on overseas treatment from public expenditure was relaxed last year, some 18 politicians and bureaucrats benefited from the special approval given by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
'The health ministry was instrumental in providing no-objection certificates and certifying that the required treatment did not exist in the country knowing well that some of those procedures like heart surgery, breast cancer, brain haemorrhage, carcinomas and eye surgery, were being done successfully in the country,' Dawn said.
But the newspaper added: 'There were certain instances in which the treatment was not available here.'
The government had in November 1996 banned all overseas treatment on public expenditure to save foreign exchange.
'The policy remained enforced till last year when Federal Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Dr Sher Afgan Khan Niazi, reputed for his interpretations of law, managed to convince the prime minister that his heart ailment could not be cured in the country and went abroad for heart surgery,' Dawn said.
Health Secretary Khushnood Lashari, while defending the prime minister's decision of using his discretionary powers to permit overseas treatment of certain bureaucrats and politicians, said the 1996 restriction was a policy matter taken during extreme financial crunch.
National Assembly member Khalid Yunus, who got the highest allocation of Rs.11 million for yearlong treatment in Britain, said he only utilised Rs.4.5 million and was under treatment for just three months.
'He believed that he deserved to be commended for not utilising the full sanctioned amount,' Dawn said.
'Asked if it was not unjust that he was given such a huge amount for overseas treatment while people in his constituency struggled to get even a single tablet from public hospitals, he said hierarchy was everywhere and this (preferential treatment) also took place everywhere.
'Don't you think that after being a parliamentarian for almost two decades I deserved this much privilege,' he argued.