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Corruption

Deadly health care fires: Decades-old wiring found in scores of hospitals in Romania

Abstract: In recent years, more than a dozen people have died in hospital fires in Romania, some of which resulted from old electrical infrastructure. At Context, we have spent months investigating the phenomenon and found that almost half of Romania’s state hospitals have intensive care units with electrical systems older than 20 years. The Ministry of Health, led by Alexandru Rafila, tried to conceal this information, but we challenged and defeated it in court.  

by Iulia Stănoiu

More than a decade after six babies died in a hospital fire in 2010 in Romania’s capital Bucharest, the hospital continues to function without a fire safety permit. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case; it’s just one of the many public hospitals in the country endangering the lives of patients because they have not been appropriately modernised and also lack systems to ensure patient safety.  

In December 2021, Rafila said he was disturbed by the findings of a report on the state of intensive care units’ electrical infrastructure in Romania’s hospitals, which we officially requested the ministry make available to us but ultimately decided not to. So we took legal action against the ministry.  

We won the legal case after a year and five months and finally obtained the document. 

Starting from the hypothesis that one of the causes of the several fires was electrical infrastructure, Context.ro asked each hospital in the country for data on the age of hospital buildings; the age of electrical wiring throughout the hospital, and the age of the electrical wiring specifically in their intensive care units. 

The data we collected reveals that almost half of the hospitals in Romania have intensive care units with electrical wiring more than two decades old  while eight intensive care units are functioning with electrical wiring more than 70 years old and 17 with older than 50 years. 

Context.ro has compiled the data in an online platform where citizens can check the conditions of hospitals in their county: https://spitale.context.ro/

We also spoke with two electrical wiring experts who explained the systemic problems that can lead to fires in Romania’s medical units:  

1. The buildings in which many hospitals operate are old and the electrical wiring cannot bear the load. Sometimes there are too many appliances drawing too much electricity at the same time and overloading them can cause fires. 

2. Sometimes poor quality electrical equipment is purchased because the basic principle of public tendering is that the lowest price should win the contracts.  

3.Improper use of plugs and medical equipment can lead to incidents. For example, extension leads should not be used and patients should not be allowed to plug in heaters or ventilators. 

4.Electrical wiring in hospitals should be checked regularly and rehabilitated to significantly reduce the risk of fire, but aren’t often carried out properly. The maintenance checks are often superficial exercises for the sake of satisfying the bureaucratic process.  

5.Some hospitals do not have fire detection systems, and many that do have them aren’t properly maintained.  

This year we discovered that, although Romania has received millions of euros in EU funding to rehabilitate more than 100 medical units, after three years the authorities have spent only a third of the money on patient safety. 

The money could have been used to upgrade electrical and oxygen installations as well as  install fire alarms and detection systems. In 2021, the authorities approved €200m worth of projects that was supposed to go toward upgrading facilities in more than 100 hospitals.  

In theory, all of the work should have been completed by December last year, and money spent after this deadline cannot be reimbursed by EU funds. By the end of January this year, Romanian authorities had used only a third of the money available, according to data from the European Funds ministry.  

Two years after the launch of the funding, the project’s balance sheet mirrors the systemic weaknesses: work on almost half of the projects has not exceeded 15% and only 6 hospitals have completed their work. In 23 cases, the work is over 75% complete. 

A few of the projects have also been phased into this financial year, meaning they will continue to receive EU money through the Health Operational Programme.    

A World Health Organization (WHO) report in 2021 states that Romania has significantly increased its health spending yet remains the EU country with the second lowest health care expenditure in the bloc.  

Corruption, however, is a major threat to the development of Romania’s healthcare system. Money spent on improving health care infrastructure is often ending up in the pockets of companies with political connections, which hinders significant improvements. 

In 2022, the National Anti-Corruption Division indicted more than 50 people working in Romania’s healthcare system, among them a hospital manager, three hospital directors, and seven doctors.  

This project was produced by: 
Reporters: Diana Livesay, Mihaela Tănase, Iulia Stănoiu, Matthew Garvey 
Editor: Cristian Andrei Leonte 
Tech: Daniel Timofte 
Illustrator: Wanda Hutira 
Coordinator: Attila Biro