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The Associated Press August 16, 2011, 5:51PM ET

Venezuelan hospitals to temporarily freeze fees

Venezuela's government announced Tuesday that the country's private hospitals agreed to temporarily freeze their fees while officials seek ways to contain health care costs and increase access for the poor.

The move comes as government officials are attempting to curb soaring inflation that is running at an annual rate of 25.1 percent, the highest in Latin America.

President Hugo Chavez last month signed a decree that creates a new state authority to oversee prices. Details of the plan to expand price controls have yet to be spelled out, but Vice President Elias Jaua has said the new measures are to affect everything from hospital services to clothing.

Health Minister Eugenia Sader said Tuesday that private hospitals agreed not to raise fees for a period of two to three weeks. She said that period will allow for lawmakers, government authorities and representatives of private hospitals to discuss ways of keeping costs in check.

Sader made the announcement at a news conference alongside hospital representatives.

"There's a commitment to freeze the fees until further notice," Sader said. Hospital representatives also promised to guarantee care for patients needing emergency medical care even if they lack full insurance coverage, she said.

Hipolito Garcia, of the Association of Private Clinics and Hospitals, said the group's members agreed to temporarily keep fees steady and will fully cooperate with the government.

"We will attend to those patients who come for emergencies just as we have at other times," Garcia said during the televised news conference.

Chavez has long accused the country's private hospitals of taking advantage of patients by charging excessive fees and occasionally denying access to poor and middle-class Venezuelans who lack insurance and cannot afford treatment.

Chavez has sought to expand and improve the public health system during his 12 years in power, and thousands of Cuban doctors now work in the slums providing care to the poor at neighborhood clinics in exchange for shipments of Venezuelan oil.

But many Venezuelans still perceive public health services as inferior and prefer private hospitals despite the higher costs.

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