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Portugal health workers strike over budget cuts

Thousands of doctors and nurses in Portugal launched a two-day nationwide strike on Wednesday over sweeping cuts in the health budget, in a protest set to cause widespread disruption to patients.

Unions said they were expecting the biggest turnout in the health sector in over two decades in protest at cuts amounting to 800 million euros ($985 million) introduced to meet the terms of a multi-billion euro bailout deal.

“We have no doubt that the strike will be a resounding success and that the protest will assemble thousands of white coats,” said Mario Jorge Neves, head of the National Federation of Doctors.

The strike will cause widespread disruption to patients with 400,000 appointments and nearly 4,500 operations cancelled, according to estimates from the Portuguese health ministry.

The strike has gone ahead after unions rebuffed an offer of talks from Health Minister Paulo Maceo at the weekend.

Doctors said a minimum service across health clinics and hospitals would be guaranteed.

Hospitals in Lisbon were much quieter than usual on Wednesday, although a few patients still waited hopefully for consultations.

“I am due to have an operation today but I don’t know if it is going to happen. I have been told to wait,” said Lidia Goncalves, a Brazilian patient.

“I was supposed to have an appointment with a specialist this morning,” Manuel Silva told AFP. “I called yesterday but they couldn’t tell me if I would be seen. This morning they told me to go home and that they would contact me soon.”

Portugal is locked into a three-year programme of debt-cutting measures and economic reforms in return for a 78-billion-euro ($103 billion) rescue package from the EU and International Monetary Fund agreed in May 2011.

To meet the requisite cuts from its health budget, the government has reduced overtime, increased prices for prescription medication and even closed certain services.

Unions say the cuts have restricted access to health care for people who can no longer afford to buy medication.

Carlos Braga, head of a patients’ rights group in the capital, has said the numbers of people who can no longer afford to pay for health care is rising fast.

“Thousands of people are now deprived of care because they cannot afford the prices that were put in place in January,” he said.

Overworked doctors and nurses have denounced a “worrying and dramatic” fall in the quality of care in Portugal’s health system — ranked 12th best in the world by the World Health Organization in 2000.

The sector has also criticised the purchase of second-rate or obsolete equipment as a cost-cutting tactic and want the government to drop plans to use cheaper outside service providers instead of hiring additional nursing staff.

On Tuesday, Portugal’s central bank warned that further cross-sector austerity measures may be needed to achieve the target of reducing the public deficit to 4.5 percent of output, as the country struggles to fix its public finances.