CBS Looks at Cuba's 'Gift' to American Med Students, Finds 'No Health Care Paradise'

On Sunday's CBS Evening News, correspondent Kelly Cobiella filed a report about American medical students who are receiving the "gift" of a free education from the Latin American School of Medicine, established by former Cuban president Fidel Castro to train doctors for poor communities. But, while entertaining suggestions from one student who thought that Michael Moore's trip to Cuba for health care "proposed a really good question about looking at our medical system and seeing what things we need to change," the CBS correspondent also found that "Cuba is no health care paradise," as she reported on "crumbling" hospitals, doctors making $20 a month, and "shortages of just about everything from drugs to high-tech equipment." (Transcript follows)

Cobiella began her report on the eight American students who are graduating from the school, and talked to one student from New York City. Cobiella: "Evelyn Erickson is from Washington Heights in New York City, lured to Cuba's Latin American School of Medicine by the promise of a free education, a gift of sorts from the Cuban government. Fidel Castro started the school in 1999 to help fill a dire need for doctors in Latin America. Students are trained at no cost in return for their pledge to practice in poor communities back home."

The CBS correspondent informed viewers that students live in old army barracks with "bunk beds, cold showers and a $4 a month stipend," where they "learn about a much different health care system, documented in the recent Michael Moore film Sicko, where all services are free, and everyone is covered."

After a clip of Erickson contending that Cuba could offer lessons about "things we need to change" in America, Cobiella poured some water over any assumptions of utopia in Cuba. Cobiella: "Still, Cuba is no health care paradise. The hospitals are crumbling. Doctors make about $20 a month. And there are shortages of just about everything from drugs to high-tech equipment."

Below is a complete transcript of Cobiella's story from the Sunday July 29 CBS Evening News:

RUSS MITCHELL: Eight Americans graduated from a foreign medical school last week. In exchange for free tuition for six years, they pledged to work in low-income neighborhoods back home. That might not be big news except that the school we're talking about is in Cuba. Kelly Cobiella paid a visit.

KELLY COBIELLA: It's graduation day at the world's largest medical school. And among the sea of 2000 graduates in lab coats are eight Americans, new doctors educated in communist Cuba. Does this bring back memories?

EVELYN ERICKSON, Latin American Medical School Graduate: It does. Anatomy class, you know, second year, I would sit in the front row.

COBIELLA: Evelyn Erickson is from Washington Heights in New York City, lured to Cuba's Latin American School of Medicine by the promise of a free education, a gift of sorts from the Cuban government. Fidel Castro started the school in 1999 to help fill a dire need for doctors in Latin America. Students are trained at no cost in return for their pledge to practice in poor communities back home -- an offer extended to a handful of U.S. students in 2001. This is a dorm?

ERICKSON: This is the dorm. You can see clothes hanging-

COBIELLA: It's a world away from the U.S. Home for Evelyn and her fellow students was an old army baracks with bunk beds, cold showers and a $4 a month stipend. And unlike the United States where students spend four years in classrooms and labs, these students spend six years in classrooms and clinics.

ERICKSON: They were calling me doctor, and I was like, no, no, no, I'm not the doctor, I'm the medical student. But what really happens is that we are the people that examine the patients every day from the very beginning.

COBIELLA: They also learn about a much different health care system, documented in the recent Michael Moore film Sicko, where all services are free, and everyone is covered.

ERICKSON: I was one of the people that was there translating for these patients when they came here to Cuba. And so I was actually there hearing their stories. And I think it proposed a really good question about looking at our medical system and seeing what things we need to change.

COBIELLA: Still, Cuba is no health care paradise. The hospitals are crumbling. Doctors make about $20 a month. And there are shortages of just about everything from drugs to high-tech equipment. Do you think you will be accepted as a doctor back in the United States with an education from Cuba?

ERICKSON: I think so. I would like to believe that we will be.

COBIELLA: Evelyn and her fellow graduates face one final hurdle before they can practice in the United States -- passing the U.S. Medical Board Exams. But by the looks on their faces, they are not worried a bit. Kelly Cobiella, CBS News, Havana, Cuba.

Brad Wilmouth
Brad Wilmouth is a contributing blogger to NewsBusters