Venezuela freezes private hospital fees for three weeks

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Private clinics in Venezuela have agreed to temporarily freeze their fees to give officials time to find ways of tackling soaring healthcare costs.

Health Minister Eugenia Sader said the hospitals agreed not to raise their prices for the next three weeks.

President Hugo Chavez has in the past accused private clinics of charging excessive fees and denying treatment to the poor and uninsured.

Venezuela is facing annual inflation of some 25% - the region's highest rate.

The agreement to hold hospital fees for three weeks came at a meeting between Ms Sader and representatives of private clinics.

Companies that supply goods and services to the clinics will also hold down prices.

Ms Sader said that the freeze would allow time to discuss ways of tackling inflation in the sector.

She said that the private hospitals had promised to guarantee emergency treatment for patients even if they lacked sufficient insurance coverage.

Hipolito Garcia, from the Association of Private Clinics and Hospitals, said they would be supplying data to the government, "so that the ministry...can take measures that allows our sector to remain sustainable and viable".

Price checks

Under President Chavez, Cuban doctors have come to Venezuela to help provide medical care in some of the poorest areas.

But the public health system remains overstretched and under-funded.

The freeze on fees comes as the government is trying to tackle inflation.

Last month, President Chavez signed a new price control measure.

Under the Law for Fair Costs and Prices, businesses in a wide range of sectors will have to set prices at levels fixed by the government.

The government says the measure will not hurt "honest" businesses but target speculation.

Critics say inflation cannot be controlled by decree.

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