Tuesday

20th Nov 2018

Opinion

Paying a high cost: EU's role in Spain's painful health cuts

  • 'I take [fewer medicines] than what the doctor prescribed me … I try to use less… in order to make them last longer. What's happening, it is shocking' one 44-year old cancer patient told Amnesty International (Photo: Gusset/Flickr)

In a new report, Amnesty International showed how austerity measures, introduced into the Spanish healthcare system in the wake of the global financial crisis, have had a severe impact on the right to health in the country.

In interviews with more than 100 users of the public health system and more than 70 health workers, Amnesty heard how austerity measures have made healthcare less accessible and less affordable.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Typical is Maria (not her real name), 44, who is recovering from breast cancer, and also has arthritis, spondylitis and Crohn's disease.

"I take [fewer medicines] than what the doctor prescribed me … I try to use less… in order to make them last longer. What's happening, it is shocking."

Like many people in Spain, especially those with low incomes and long-term health problems, Maria has been hit hard by the Spanish government's austerity measures.

She told Amnesty International how, despite the seriousness of her conditions, she is often forced to ration her medication to save costs.

The quality of healthcare has also deteriorated notably, with many people expressing concerns about longer waiting times, shorter appointments and poorer-quality equipment.

The Spanish government began to cut spending on healthcare in 2009.

Austerity measures - notably introduced through a Royal Decree law - included shifting some costs of medicines onto individuals, limiting access to healthcare for irregular migrants, and cutting spending on health workers, equipment and infrastructure.

Austerity measures can threaten a range of economic, cultural and social rights enshrined in international law, including the right to health. To prevent or reduce the potential of a negative impact, the UN has developed international guidelines on how states can develop and implement austerity measures in way that doesn't breach their human rights obligations.

However, Spain has failed to follow these guidelines with resulting serious and widespread human rights impacts.

Amnesty International found that Spain has failed to comply with its obligations in several ways, and that the right to health in Spain has been seriously impacted as a result.

For example, the government implemented austerity measures before all other options had been exhausted, and it did not conduct human rights impact assessments or hold adequate consultations and ensure the participation of affected persons first.

In addition, many of the changes introduced to the health system remain in force years later, despite guidelines stating that austerity measures should be temporary.

This failure has had a disproportionate impact on some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Amnesty heard how financial pressure has forced people like Maria to make impossible choices.

Another woman who had recently finished breast cancer treatment said she skipped some of her pills so she could afford a special prosthetic bra.

Above average waiting times

The report shows how health workers are being stretched to their limits, buckling under an unsustainable workload.

The report heard from people who are left waiting in pain for months as they face unbearably long waiting lists to access key services; and people seeking mental health care who are making do with five-minute appointments.

Many of our findings echo other existing research, including by the EU.

For example, the EU's 2017 Country Health profile on Spain said that average waiting times for elective surgeries "are well above the level in other EU countries such as Italy and Portugal".

A recent EU report also noted that the increased difference in unmet health care needs between the lowest and highest income brackets in Spain between 2008 and 2014 was "significant".

However, the role played by the EU itself in the implementation of austerity by member states needs to also be highlighted. In the case of Spain the EU steered the government to implement austerity measures without assessing the potential consequences for people's rights.

This is despite the fact that EU institutions have human rights responsibilities.

EU leadership?

The EU needs to show leadership by taking these responsibilities more seriously, and ensure that all steps are taken to avoid negative impacts on people's human rights, including's right to health, in the future.

As a starting point, EU institutions should acknowledge their role in how austerity has impacted people in Europe, including in Spain, and commit to conducting human rights impact assessments of all member states' economic reform programmes.

The EU should also either conduct, or ask states to conduct, assessments of country-specific recommendations to ensure that the implementation of austerity measures does not result in reduced human rights protections.

Finally, future recommendations and targets for fiscal consolidation from EU institutions should not undermine states' ability to support strong public health systems and fulfil the right to health.

Sanhita Ambast is a researcher and adviser on economic, social and cultural rights at Amnesty International

Interview

Health inequalities are economic issue, says commissioner

Social and geographical inequalities in Europeans' health are one of the main challenges for the EU, says health commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis. He calls on finance ministers to look at the consequences for their country's economies and competitiveness.

Spain's De Guindos to be ECB vice-president

Spanish finance minister Luis de Guindos will join the the European Central Bank in June, after his sole rival for the vice-presidency job stepped down on Monday.

Panic is not answer to EU's security challenges

EU foreign ministers must choose between contaminating their civilian missions and operations with panic over security and migration, and reaffirming the EU's core values as a global actor for peace and development.

EU must recognise new force for Balkans destabilisation

EU foreign ministers will discuss Bosnia and Herzegovina on Monday. The EU has the opportunity to show that it is not a political dwarf in the Balkans, where not only economic, but also political reforms are necessary.

US steps in to clean up Cyprus

Cyprus has overlooked undertakings on bank probity made to the EU in the context of the 2013 bailout - but it might prove harder to get the US off its back.

News in Brief

  1. May to meet Juncker on Wednesday to finalise Brexit deal
  2. Future of EU's Mediterranean naval mission in doubt
  3. EU budget talks for 2019 collapse
  4. EU mulls new Russia sanctions over Ukraine 'elections'
  5. EU farm chief 'confident' sugar prices will recover
  6. Researcher: EU expert groups still imbalanced and opaque
  7. Nature groups disappointed by EU fishing deal
  8. DUP chief says Irish backstop was 'tactic' by EU

Why 'Spitzenkandidat' is probably here to stay

The power of the parliament to 'appoint' the president of the EU Commission is new, highly-contested - and not universally understood. In fact, even some of the lead candidates to replace Jean-Claude Juncker are against it.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  5. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  6. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  7. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  8. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  9. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  10. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  12. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs

Latest News

  1. Cyprus and Greece to create EU spy academy
  2. MEPs likely to delay vote on greater transparency
  3. Cold shoulder for Franco-German euro budget plan
  4. Whistleblower: Danske Bank gag stops me telling more
  5. Spain raises Gibraltar, as EU and UK talk post-2020 relationship
  6. Panic is not answer to EU's security challenges
  7. Dutch flesh out proposal for EU human rights sanctions
  8. EU cheerleaders go to Russia-occupied Ukraine

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  3. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  5. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  9. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  10. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us