Italy, unlike the United States, does have a national healthcare system (servizio sanitario nazionale). It is funded through indirect taxes and allows citizens to obtain health assistance almost for free.
The most common example of it is the so-called base doctor (medico di base), to whom you can go to get help on minor matters and to have drugs prescribed. In case you need something more specific, he or she will refer you to a public specialist by filling a medical recipe (really! it’s called ricetta medica!) that you will hand to the public hospital to book your visit. More likely than not, you have to pay some money to the hospital for it; prices vary depending on the kind of the examination, on the region you are in, and sometimes even on the hospital. Last year, I paid €22 (around $33) for a dermatological examination, plus some €10 ($14) as an additional tax that the region had decided to impose. Not too bad, considering that if I had gone to a private specialist I would have wound up paying no less than €100 ($140).
Everything fine? Not really. The waiting lists tend to be very long, including for simple medical visits. I had to wait over a month for mine, and it’s not uncommon to wait several months either. A few weeks ago, the media briefly reported how a woman, during her 8th month of pregnancy, was told to go back to the hospital after 5-6 months to have some amniotic test done to assess the health of the soon-to-be-born baby. I cannot find any newspaper report about it right now, but I swear I’m not making this up.
However, you can have pretty much any exam and surgery for free, including organ transplants. Especially for surgeries, though, there are two things required from you: that you live long enough to be summoned for it, and that everything goes smoothly. No, I’m not talking about how your body reacts to the surgery. I’m talking about how it’s carried out: it often made the news that some people died, or otherwise felt very sick, after surgeries because the team accidentally forgot items such as scissors and gauze inside the patient. Again, I’m not making this up. Have a look at this article (in Italian): this man died after 7 months of agony following a surgery because they had forgotten a 7 x 14 cm gauze and a “piece of fabric” inside him. And you have to hope that nothing else goes wrong, because you might, say, die because the hospital undergoes an electrical black out (it happened to a 16-year-old girl last year) or for uknown causes during a routine tonsillectomy (it happened to another 16-year-old girl a few days ago, in the same hospital).
Bad hospital, you say? Yes, I don’t deny that, especially since, being in the South, it’s probably in the hand of some Mafia-like criminal organisation. However, in the biggest hospital in Rome, the “Umberto I”, patients are moved from one ward to another, and to and from surgery rooms, using underground tunnels with water leaking from asbestos pipes (absestos, amianto in Italian, has been banned because proved carcinogenic) while cute pets such as rats and giant cockroaches run through forgotten boxes of forgotten radioactive and contagious material to keep them some company and, one would hope, encourage them that they – these beasts – are nothing compared to what they might find in the surgery room. A journalist managed to get into the hospital as a medical orderly and reported it all; here is an article about it.
Funny enough, the only dental care provided by the national healthcare system is the fixing of cavity. Anything else is not covered, and you have to go to some specialist on your own and pay for it out of your own pocket, possibly after agreeing on some loan.
This is not, anyhow, to say that everything is wrong with it. There are very good professionals in the public healthcare field, and I am confident that they outnumber the unreliable ones. The main problem lies in the very deep and unbreakable bureaucracy that permeates the whole country. I will write extensively about it in future posts.
Oh, and by the way: in italian, “drugs” (droga / droghe) are illicit ones, like marijuana or cocaine. Meds are medicinale / medicinali, or in everyday speech, medicina / medicine.