Colombia's Petro presents controversial health reform to Congress

BOGOTA, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Monday presented a controversial health reform to lawmakers which his government says will improve primary care, expand access to treatment, raise healthcare worker salaries and fight corruption by eliminating private sector management of payments.

The health reform is one of several key initiatives that leftist Petro, who took office just over six months ago, wants to push through to fight inequality, exclusion and poverty in the Andean country.

"What we want is for doctors to be able to go anywhere in the country and care for anyone, for the country to be organized in such a way that its people, its inhabitants, can always be cared for by healthcare professional," Petro said while presenting the bill to Congress.

The government initially eyed eliminating private sector healthcare providers, or EPS, and making municipal and provincial officials take over that role instead. Critics said that would politicize healthcare and create corruption.

Colombia's healthcare system, in which workers pay to be affiliated with a certain EPS, with contributions from their employers, has long suffered from rampant corruption, with frequent complaints of patients dying due to lack of care.

The state pays medical costs for people who cannot afford to.

However, while Petro's success in building a broad coalition in Congress with support across the political spectrum helped him push through a tax reform last year, plans to remove healthcare provision from the hands of EPS caused tensions in that alliance and within his cabinet.

Coalition heavyweights including Senate President Roy Barreras and Education Minister Alejandro Gaviria, who led the health ministry in a previous administration, opposed the overhaul.

Petro and Health Minister Carolina Corcho have since backed down on taking healthcare provision away from EPS providers, but the bill includes provisions to set up a government body to centralize payments currently made by EPS to clinics and hospitals, to ensure quick payouts.

Recent reports show hospitals and clinics across Colombia are waiting for some 11.5 trillion pesos (about $2.4 billion) in payments from EPS.

The bill would also set up primary care centers to guarantee swift care for all patients.

Many Colombians receive medical attention through emergency services, which bogs down the health system.

Reporting by Luis Jaime Acosta Writing by Oliver Griffin; Editing by Richard Chang

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