Doctors, patients rage at Madrid hospital cuts

Roland Lloyd Parry | AFP

Published — Tuesday 27 November 2012

Last update 27 November 2012 4:30 pm

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MADRID: Ever since her father had his heart attack years ago, 76-year-old Maria has been fiercely devoted to Spain’s public hospitals. Now that authorities are planning to privatize parts of them, she is outraged.
“At half past three I saw he was not well. I called our private health care provider and they told me they had no doctors available,” she said, standing in her local Madrid hospital, festooned with angry red-painted banners.
“So I called the public health service. They sent an ambulance. He got to hospital by ten to four. They saved his life by being so quick,” added Maria, who would not give her surname.
“We have a health system that is the envy of the world and they want to dismantle it, and we will be the ones to pay.”
Maria attends daily meetings of concerned citizens at Madrid’s La Princesa University Hospital, where she and her family have been treated — and now she and other users have been joined in their outcry by doctors.
Crowds of medics in white coats protested on Monday at hospitals across the capital, including La Princesa general, which authorities want to convert to a special care unit for the elderly, part of broader cost-saving measures.
They launched a strike from Monday to Thursday to try to force the Madrid regional government to change its plans, with a shorter stoppage by other hospital workers on Monday and Tuesday to be repeated on December 4 and 5.
Madrid’s conservative regional government insists its hospitals plan is necessary for Madrid to meet its tough deficit targets and denies it is privatizing or dismantling La Princesa.
“We have an excellent system of quality public health for all, but in the current situation we do not have enough revenue for it all to keep working as it does,” it said in a statement.
“The reduction we have to make in health spending in Madrid is equivalent to the current budget of two hospitals. The most direct route would have been to close hospitals, but this government believes there are alternatives.”
The Madrid government said it planned to make savings in the 2013 budget by outsourcing non-health services such as cleaning to private companies and hiring private firms of doctors to provide health care in some centers.
That “is a common model in Europe” and “generates greater incentives and motivation for professionals,” it said.
On Monday minimum services were in operation to ensure emergency rooms stayed open as doctors demonstrated at hospitals such as La Princesa and La Paz in northern Madrid.
Appointments to see the doctor were disrupted, however, with long queues in some waiting rooms.
“Our colleagues told us they had to reschedule a lot of appointments,” said Rosa de la Morena, an administrator at La Paz, who attended a meeting on the cuts on Monday evening in a crowded hall there.
“But they made sure patients who came from outside town saw the doctor.”
Protesters hung banners from hospital facades reflecting their conviction — widespread among victims of Spain’s finance crisis and recession — that the private sector puts profits before care.
“We want to be patients, not customers,” read one banner.
“If you cut health care, you cut life,” read another.
Spain’s regions are under pressure to curb spending as the national government seeks to cut seven billion euros ($9 billion) a year from the health budget.
“The central government is already cutting spending,” said Cristina Diez, 29, an internal medicine specialist at the Hospital Gregorio Maranon in central Madrid.
“If in addition to that they privatise, it is to try and make health care profitable. We are against that,” she added.
“They are using the crisis as an excuse to do what they have been planning to do for a long time. We want to demonstrate until the Madrid government stops its plan.”
Workers warned that a little-reported aspect of the cuts was the effect on many non-medical staff who fear being laid off if services are outsourced.
“The current contracts expire on December 31. Then I may end up on the street,” said Milagros, 44, a cleaner at a hospital in southern Madrid, attending the meeting in La Paz.
“We temporary workers are going to disappear. It affects cleaners, cooks, maintenance workers, seamstresses — all the non-sanitary sectors. And patients have no idea that it is happening.”
In la Princesa, Maria left the protest committee’s meeting room where participants had placed in one corner a cardboard coffin with a cross on the lid.
“We Spaniards built this system together,” she said. “Now they want to sell it.”

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