By Kathleen Knox/Jan DeWeydenthal
A story that began with an investigation by local journalists in central Poland has turned into a national scandal. Ambulance staff in the city of Lodz are suspected of deliberately letting patients die -- or even killing those seriously ill -- in order to sell their details to local funeral homes.
Prague, 31 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The respected Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" and Radio Lodz were the first to report on the so-called "skin hunters."
Marcin Stelmasiak is one of the three journalists who broke the story. In an interview with RFE/RL from the Lodz office of "Gazeta Wyborcza," Stelmasiak spoke of how he and his colleagues started looking into the practice of hospital staff selling the details of recently deceased patients to funeral homes.
"We had been interested in this particular matter for more than half a year. In the beginning, we started an investigation into 'trading' in bodies between the emergency services and funeral homes. Then we got wind of the possibility of a much more serious matter, of patients being murdered or left to die. There were three ways of doing it. Ambulance crews would travel slowly on purpose in the hope that the patient would be dead by the time they got there. Or they would not intervene to help, or they would consciously inject a drug to asphyxiate the patient. There are very strong chances that the same procedures could take place in different emergency services throughout the country."
Stelmasiak says that for each corpse, hospital staff allegedly received payments of 800 zlotys (almost $200) from funeral homes eager for business. He says he has no idea how many bodies may have been involved, but calls from concerned relatives of the recently deceased have deluged a special police hot line.
Since it broke more than a week ago, the story has never left the headlines. This week, Polish Health Minister Mariusz Lapinski met with the directors of regional ambulance services over the affair and labeled the practice only a "marginal phenomenon."
But Polish Justice Minister Barbara Piwnik says similar "cash for corpses" scams have been operating in three other cities -- Olsztyn, Rzeszow, and Bielsko Podlaska. This week also brought the first arrests -- of two Lodz doctors accused of taking bribes.
Others have been questioned in the scandal. Police have not yet charged anyone with actually killing patients.
Stelmasiak says Poles have been just as shocked by allegations that hospital staff traded in dead patients' information as they are at claims that patients may have actually been murdered.
"It was a tremendous shock [for people]. Some people still don't believe that these things were taking place. What is very interesting is how it's being received by the doctors. Some simply do not believe that anything like that could happen. Other doctors are saying, 'Finally, somebody is interested and could clear up this matter.' And there are other doctors still who not only don't believe it, but accuse us of creating artificial sensationalism."
Alexander Smolar is an analyst at Warsaw's Stefan Batory Foundation, which supports the development of democratic and open societies. He says confidence in Poland's health services was already low but that this affair has shaken it even further.
"It concerns the profession that is one of the foundations of the social order, of the fundamental security people want to have living in society. In a situation when the country is destabilized by economic processes, [and is in] a quite difficult economic situation [thanks to] all those very profound transformations of the last 10 [years], there are very few points of reference which give a sort of fundamental security to the population."
Smolar says he does not expect any political fallout from the affair, since politicians were quick to confront what one described as the "macabre" practice.
Smolar says one good thing may come of the scandal. With the country's health services at the center of so much attention, improvements might follow. Most of all, Smolar says, the affair is making people reflect on the cost of Poland's economic transformation following the collapse of communism.
"The reflections in general are on the moral level and on the consequences of the economic and social transformation of the beginning of the '90s. [The] marketization, the radical transformation of the planned economy into a market economy, was accompanied by a very dangerous tendency in public discourse [that focused on] reducing success to purely financial dimensions. This contributed very much to the corruption which we can observe in the health system. It contributed to the, let's say, decomposition of the moral tissue in some sectors of the health system."
Smolar says there is one risky aspect to the affair: "There is a danger of over-generalization now. The way many politicians and journalists speak now of what happened in Lodz and probably in other towns can create the impression that this is a general phenomenon, which is certainly not the case."
The story also has attracted a lot of attention abroad. Two Czech newspapers, for example, conducted their own investigations and found similar trading practices going on between emergency staff and funeral homes in the Czech Republic.
Smolar says the case is possibly Poland's most important investigative journalism story in years. But Stelmasiak, one of the journalists who broke the story, is not letting it go to his head.
"First of all, it's such an awful, despicable story that it's difficult for us to say anything about personal satisfaction. We did what we had to do. We simply discovered the matters and pointed out various possibilities. And now it's up to the law enforcement authorities to look into this matter and bring these people to justice."