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Portuguese doctors strike for a second day over budget cuts

Doctors protesting sweeping cuts in Portugal’s health budget took to the streets of Lisbon for a second and final day on Thursday as unions hoped to top Wednesday’s turnout.

Unions estimate that 90 percent of doctors went on strike yesterday and said 4,000 people had joined the protest. Police put the number at 2,500.

“This is the biggest ever strike by doctors in Portugal,” said Mario Jorge Neves, president of the FNAM doctors’ union. The last significant strike action by the sector was over 20 years ago.

Thursday’s strike was set to continue broad disruption to patients, with 400,000 appointments and nearly 4,500 operations cancelled over the two days, according to estimates from the Portuguese health ministry.

The government is slicing 800 million euros ($985 million) from the health budget to meet the terms of a multi-billion-euro bailout deal.

The strike went ahead after unions rebuffed an offer of talks from Health Minister Paulo Maceo, who said he was “ready for dialogue and negotiations”.

Maceo said yesterday the government was “aiming to minimise the impact of the budgetary cuts with which we have to live on the general population”.

Doctors said a minimum service would be guaranteed for a second day.

On Wednesday, doctors in white coats, some wearing black armbands to express mourning, gathered outside the health ministry, many holding placards with messages such as “Access for all and not just the rich”.

“The national health service is under threat. They want to destroy it by creating disparities in who has access to care,” said Miguel Cunha, a 49-year-old paediatrician.

Portugal is locked into a three-year programme of debt-cutting measures and economic reforms in return for a 78-billion-euro 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 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 have denounced a “worrying and dramatic” fall in the quality of care in Portugal’s health system — which was ranked 12th best in the world by the World Health Organization in 2000.