Tens of thousands of health workers protest in Spain

PHOTO: Tens of thousands of health workers protest in Spain

Tens of thousands of Spanish doctors, nurses and hospital staff marched through the capital Madrid on Sunday to denounce budget cuts and privatisations, the latest protest against deeply unpopular austerity measures.

Dressed in white, the protesters chanted "Public health!" and "Health is a right. We are going to fight."

Many demonstrators in Madrid wore small "For Sale" signs on their coats.

The health sector has been hard hit by the austerity policies implemented by the rightwing government of Mariano Rajoy, which is trying to cut the public deficit in the eurozone's fourth largest economy.

And health sector staff have already hit back.

For several weeks, staff have occupied about 20 hospitals in Madrid and the surrounding area to protest the regional government's decision to privatise six facilities as part of budget cuts planned for 2013.

Jaime Rodriguez, a 33-year-old doctor from the Leganes hospital in the Madrid suburbs, said he was there "because the budget cuts are harming medical services for citizens, and because working conditions for staff are worsening".

For example, Rodriguez said, a 90-year-old patient had to spend five days in the emergency room because there were no free beds elsewhere in the hospital.

"Health care cuts kill!" one of the many placards held by demonstrators read.

And Spaniards are increasingly being asked to shoulder their health costs. Pensioners, who previously had to pay nothing, must now pay at least 10 per cent of their pharmacy bills.

"Cuts are visible in the pharmacy supplies. Certain sick people must now clamour to get treated," said gastroenterologist Daniel Domingo, who was wearing his white doctor's coat.

Medical workers fear privatisations will lead to layoffs and deteriorating health care.

"I have been a nurse in a private hospital, where I know there are fewer resources and personnel," said Yolanda Abebes, a 48-year-old nurse from a large Madrid hospital.

About 5,000 police officers had taken to the streets of Madrid on Saturday to protest salary cuts and the thinning of their ranks.

The Spanish government has imposed austerity cuts aimed at saving 150 billion euros between 2012 and 2014, prompting an angry backlash that saw hundreds of thousands of people protest in a general strike Wednesday.

It was the second general strike in eight months in Spain, which is deep in a recession that has left one in four workers unemployed.

Spain's eurozone partners in June agreed to extend an emergency rescue loan of up to 100 billion euros to help its stricken banks, leaving many Spaniards livid.