UAE cancer care: Abu Dhabi pledge means treatment is covered for those who can't pay

Hospitals like Cleveland Clinic and Sheikh Khalifa Medical City say they'll ensure everyone is treated

At right, Honey S Babu, a radiology technician, checks the computer inside a mobile mammogram clinic, which provided for free breast-cancer screening for scheduled and walk-in clients, as the van parked outside of the Delma Mall in Musaffah, on Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014. The van, provided by the LLH Hospital in Musaffah, is being sent to various residential areas and malls for breast cancer awareness month. According to the van staff, the mobile mammogram provided a free screening for 152 women in just 14 days. (Silvia Razgova / The National)

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Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi's new cancer centre will cover the costs of treatment for Emiratis and residents of the capital who cannot afford care, hospital officials said on Monday.

Doctors made the pledge as they began work on a new seven-floor oncology centre adjacent to the state-of-the-art hospital on Al Maryah Island.

But the policy, though rarely publicised, isn't new.

It reflects a mandate by the founding President Sheikh Zayed, who called for Emiratis and residents of Abu Dhabi unable to afford care for rare or life threatening disease to receive free treatment at government hospitals. This has continued under President Sheikh Khalifa.

More than 100 acute leukaemia patients received free treatment at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City over the past two years under the presidential mandate. Many were labourers whose health insurance did not cover cancer care sufficiently.

"The Government of Abu Dhabi treats everyone who cannot afford treatment and with a life-threatening condition," said Dr Fatima Al Kaabi, a haematology consultant at SKMC. These include kidney disease, heart disease and all cancers.

“The treatment of cancers isn’t just chemotherapy, but immunotherapy as well as targeted therapy,” Dr Al Kaabi said.

“We treat patients in our centres. Labourers or Thiqa patients [Emiratis], all of them will receive treatment without discrimination. Even if the cost of medication is over Dh200,000 we will get it and give it to the patient regardless of colour, race or religion,” she said.

Dr Al Kaabi said the average cost of one cycle of chemotherapy [between six to eight sessions] ranges from Dh300,000 to Dh400,000 – depending on the type of cancer.

But insurance policies vary between the emirates and patients from other emirates or those with limited insurance plans are often forced to turn to charities for financial support.

Dubai's mandatory health insurance - introduced in 2015 - stipulates that employees, their dependents and domestic helpers are entitled to Dh150,000 per year of treatment. Abu Dhabi's mandatory cover - introduced in 2006 - entitles someone to Dh250,000 of care.

And while all health insurance plans offered for example by Daman, the part-state owned insurance company, cover cancer treatment, treatment can be more costly that the cover provides.

"The policy limit is down to the discretion of the policyholder, often the sponsor or employer, who makes the decision on how much to cap the annual spending limit when buying a policy," said Maissa Al Khafajy, a spokeswoman for Daman.

When mandatory cover runs out, patients may have to cover costs themselves, while hospitals will often ask local charities to help to pay.

Dr Sadir Alrawi, director of surgical oncology services at Al Zahra Hospital in Dubai, said he often approaches charities on behalf of patients who do not have insurance.

“We offer the same services for UAE nationals and residents, and if they don’t have insurance then I’ll get them the support from a charity," he said.