Professionals of the public healthcare system protest across Catalonia

The Catalan Government is cutting the Healthcare System’s expenditure by 10% because the public deficit needs to be drastically reduced this year. Health professionals started protesting last week because they fear a worsening of services and working conditions. The Catalan Minister for Health, Boi Ruiz guaranteed basic health services, but the protests continue.

CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

April 14, 2011 03:48 AM

Barcelona (ACN).- Health professionals are angry after the announcement that there would be a reduction in the Catalan Healthcare System’s budget. Doctors, nurses and other workers in the public health system, backed by the main trade unions and patient associations, are protesting across Catalonia. Since last week, health professionals have been protesting, organising protest breaks and concentrations within health centres and their surroundings. On Wednesday the doctors unions took to the streets and cut some main roads, such as Barcelona’s encircling highways and some main streets in the city centre. On Thursday, widespread protests are scheduled, which will include the rest of the health professionals and other public sector employees. In fact, the education sector is also preparing their protests. Most of the public sector is on guard before the announced cuts in public expenditure. The new Catalan Government, run by the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalist Coalition Convergència i Unió (CiU), has to reduce the public deficit for 2011, after the increases in 2010. Considering the slow recovery of the economy and CiU’s commitment not to raise taxes, revenue will not be increased in the short-term. CiU’s main recipe to balance the Catalan Government’s budget and drastically reduce the public deficit is to cut public expenditure, including in the public health sector. In addition, the Catalan Healthcare System is underfinanced, due to an increase of the population that was not compensated enough with a budget increase, mainly due to a lack of transfers from the Spanish Government. Catalan Government sources have said that the budget deficit of the Catalan health system totals 1,000 million euros. In the face of this situation, the Government has decided to cut expenditure in the public health system. However, as this is an extremely sensitive area, alarms have been activated and the entire sector is ready to take action.

The 10% budget reduction is planned hospital by hospital; however they have not yet been approved

In February, hospital and health centre managers were required to draw up individual austerity plans for each centre to reduce their expenditure by 10%. At the end of March, they had to present them to the Catalan Ministry of Health, which is now studying them. The plans have also been presented to the professionals and some of the foreseen measures have put health professionals under pressure. The plans have not been approved, but trade unions and some political parties have said that the effects can already be noticed.

The 10% reduction in the Catalan Healthcare System is just one area in the public sector budget that is being cut. The Catalan Government’s budget for 2011 was not approved due to the electoral calendar and the new Government, which took office at Christmas, had to deal with an extension of the 2010 budget while they were coming up with the budget for 2011. The budget for 2011 has one main condition: reducing the deficit from 3.86% of Catalonia’s GDP to 1.3%. It will be approved by June or July. Meanwhile, the extension of the 2010 budget is what enables the public sector to continue operating. However, this extension comes with some conditions, such as only spending 30% of the entire annual budget before the approval of the new budget. This means spending only 30% in the first half of the year. On top of this, no contracts can be renewed, unless an exception is approved.

Trade unions such as the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and political parties such as the Catalan Green Socialist Party (ICV) have condemned the loss of jobs in the Catalan Healthcare System and also expressed concerns that replacements have not happened. They have also criticised the expenditure cuts and have said that they can already be noticed. In fact, for the Easter holidays, some hospitals have announced they will close surgery rooms and the external consultation services, a measure that excludes severely ill patients.

The Catalan Minister for Health announced a guarantee to protect basic services

In reaction to the alarm generated by the announced budget reduction measures in the Catalan Healthcare System, the Catalan Minister for Health, Boi Ruiz, announced on Tuesday a guarantee to preserve levels of basic services. The guarantee was approved by the Government’s weekly cabinet meeting. Three main areas will not be affected by the budget reduction: emergency rooms, severe patients and primary healthcare. Ruiz defined these areas as an “equilateral triangle” in a press conference. He decided to announce this guarantee in order to stop rumours or interpretations of the budget reduction measures, as well as a way of giving confidence to healthcare users and professionals.

After the Minister’s announcement, the doctor’s union ‘Metges de Catalunya’ (Doctors of Catalonia) disqualified Ruiz’s measures. They alerted that healthcare is a web and that if the rest of the web is affected by important budget reductions, even these basic services may be affected, such as emergency rooms. They repeated that they are deeply concerned by the quality of the Catalan Healthcare System and the effects of the austerity plans announced. Therefore, they said they were continuing the protests scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, and the ones that are to come.

The main external advisor to the Catalan Government on health warns on the danger of going too far with the budget cuts

On Monday, the Catalan Government’s main external advisor on health issues, Miquel Vilardell, distanced himself from the austerity measures put on the table and said in a YouTube video that buget cuts should not go too far as the service quality may be endangered. Vilardell, who is the Chairman of the Doctors Professional Association of Barcelona, was appointed by the Catalan Government as the Chairman of the recently created Advisory Council on Health. This body brings together some stakeholders representatives and some experts appointed by the Government to provide advice on how to handle the adaptation of the Catalan Healthcare System. The council already met twice. Vilardell’s words were interpreted as a criticism of the Catalan Government’s plans regarding healthcare, and therefore spurred opposition parties to criticise the Executive.