Italy: After three years stem cell bill arrives, angry couples forced to pay for free service protest

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A 300-euro bill has arrived for some couples that had stem cells taken from their child at birth three years ago. Sant’Anna has sent a bill to parents who decided to transport umbilical cord blood to Switzerland, which in Italy cannot be stored for personal use.

For the past year, the procedure is no longer free at Sant’Anna, but now the hospital is sending bills out to couples who had the procedure done in 2008 when the hospital was not yet making people pay and the operation was entirely free. Numerous couples in the past weeks have surprisingly received a bill from Sant’Anna and the complaints are rolling in, along with phone calls and e-mails, opinion columns in the newspapers and interviews on TV.

“Our first son was born in 2006,” said a couple of young parents who asked to remain anonymous. “We asked the hospital to keep the umbilical cord stem cells and send them to Switzerland where it is possible to pay for them to be stored for personal, future use. No one at Sant’Anna hospital told us that we would have had to pay for this service.”

A few weeks ago due to the upcoming birth of their second son, the couple returned to the hospital.

“We asked for the same service,” they explained, “and this time they asked us for a 300 euro payment in order to obtain the necessary certification to transport the blood to Switzerland. We accepted, despite the fact that 300 euros seemed excessive, because they only need a simple health document. We paid the bill, but recently we also received a second bill for the same amount and we discovered that the bill was for the birth of our first child 3 years ago.”

The same thing happened to about ten couples, which three years after receiving the same services from the hospital, were sent a bill by Sant’Anna Hospital. A 300-euro bill that was completely unexpected, since until the end of March 2008 the hospital had not set any price for the service.

Current laws in Italy do not allow people to store stem cells for personal use. Only free, voluntary, and anonymous donations of umbilical cord blood can be made, which are then made available to anyone who needs them, just like blood or organ donations.

“Voluntary donation is covered by the national health system,” said executives at the hospital through their press office. Donation for personal use is not covered because it is not part of the program. Orders from the healthcare ministry specify that public hospitals do not have to guarantee this service. The hospitals, like Sant’Anna, which make this service available, naturally have the right to charge patients for this service, since it is not covered by the national health system.”

At least until March 2008 there were no precise regulations on the matter.

“Regulations were set one year ago,” said heath-care officials, “and since then all of the couples are being informed that the cost of the service is 300 euros. This sum is needed in order to perform a detailed certification of the blood. This document is necessary to transport the stem cells across the border. The hospital must guarantee that the withdrawal was done in compliance with all of the regulations and that the sample is healthy, and that it has been collected and stored according to all regulations.”

However, Sant’Anna is sending out bills for children that were born before March 2008. “The couples knew that sooner or later they would receive a bill,” said hospital officials. “The sum was not established, but they were informed that this was not a free service.”

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