Negotiating the healthcare system in Capital Federal de Buenos Aires
Updated: Apr 10, 2020
I remember when I first arrived in BA almost nine years ago now the healthcare system was completely indecipherable to me. This was for two reasons: firstly, the UK healthcare system at the time was extremely straightforward to use, but secondly, the Argentine system is actually pretty complicated. The idea of this article is to share what I have gleaned from using and working in the system all these years. However, if I have made a mistake or an omission then please leave me a comment and I'll update or correct. It's extremely important that we expats understand our healthcare options at the moment.
The Argentine system is split into three sections: salud publica, obras sociales and prepagas.
Salud publica is public healthcare. This is a network of public hospitals and clinics that are free at the point of use and paid for by taxes. The clinics in CABA are called CESACs (Centro de Salud y Acción Comunitaria), in these you will be able to get basic attention like see a doctor or nurse, get vaccinations, etc. The largest public hospitals are El Pirovano, El Tornú, El hospital Fernández and Hospital de Clínicas. They all have emergency rooms or A&E departments, carry out surgical procedures and have a wide variety of specialist departments and professionals. I have used public hospitals and clinics in my time here and I have friends who have actually had quite major surgery in them and I can honestly say that I don't know anyone who hasn't received excellent attention. Having said that I also know that the buildings are old and poorly maintained, they are lacking in equipment and drugs and often the level of cleanliness is lower than it would be in a country like the UK. The public healthcare system is already extremely overloaded and we're yet to see how it will hold up when the coronavirus peaks in a few weeks.
Obras sociales and prepagas are private healthcare options and the law (Plan Médico Obligatorio) dictates the minimum cover that every provider must guarantee their clients.
Obras sociales are healthcare plans that every person who is employed "en blanco" (legally) must receive by law. The employee and employer share the costs. If you need to see a doctor you can go to your obra social's website and choose one of their affiliated professionals from the list (cartilla médica). You may have to pay a small fee (co-pago) when you see the doctor (usually about $200 pesos).
Prepagas are private healthcare plans. You pay monthly installments and in exchange you receive medical attention from their affiliated professionals or in their medical establishments. These policies usually have some limits and obviously this depends upon how much you pay per month. The two providers that are usually considered the most reliable are OSDE and Medicus and both have a range of plans from basic to almost unlimited. In certain circumstances you may have to pay a small fee (co-pago) when you see the doctor.
In the current situation it is extremely unlikely that a prepago or an obra social will accept you as a new client. The good news is that there are other options.
Many doctors work with private clients and simple consultations are inexpensive (usually under $50 USD). As a psychologist I often work with psychiatrists which I am happy to recommend, and I have seen a variety of different medical professionals recommended in the BA expat hub, Expats in Buenos Aires and Expats in Argentina Facebook groups. Also private hospitals will see you as a private patient. Hospital Italiano and Hospital Alemán are both excellent and relatively inexpensive for simple consultations. You will need to go to the "guardia" which is like the emergency room or A&E. Most of us from the UK will wait until we are at death's door before we go to A&E but in the "guardia" they treat less urgent conditions.
Once you have seen a doctor if part of the recommended treatment is to take any kind of medication you will probably need a prescription (receta). If you need any kind of psychiatric medication including antidepressants and medication for anxiety you will need a prescription with a duplicate (doble receta). It is advisable to check the information on the prescription (date, name, ID numbers, etc.) before you leave because if there are any mistakes the pharmacy will not accept it. Also, the prescription must have the drug's generic name and the commercial name. If you have an obra social or a prepaga you will get a discount on the purchase of medication (usually 40-60%). In the UK it is very common to go to the pharmacy to ask for advice about symptoms or problems and here that isn't a service they offer. I often see in the Facebook groups people saying that here you can buy prescription drugs without a prescription and whilst I have heard that in certain neighbourhoods this is possible, most pharmacies in the areas where expats usually live are likely to adhere to the rules.
If you need to phone an ambulance you should phone 107. The service is called SAME, it's part of the public healthcare system and they will ALWAYS take you to a public hospital. If your condition allows you can then arrange to be transferred to a private institution covered by your obra social or prepaga. The obra sociales and prepagas have their own ambulance services and the phone number you need to dial should be available on their webpages.
Remember that if you are in Argentina at the moment and don't have a healthcare plan private physicians and clinics are excellent and accessible for simple problems but become very expensive very quickly if you need more complex treatment or to be hospitalized for any reason. This means that you run the risk of ending up in the public health system. Rest assured that you won't be denied treatment on the basis of your immigration status or because you haven't been in the country for long enough, however, there has never been a more uncertain time to resort to this.
Finally, obviously, at the moment unless you are in urgent need of medical attention, the best advice is to stay home, stay safe.