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Hundreds protest Spanish 'health care apartheid'

MADRID--Protesters marched in Madrid Saturday against a new government measure restricting free health care for some immigrants, which has already provoked a revolt by some doctors and regional health bodies.

Hundreds of people demonstrated noisily against the measure, which will limit access to free health care for immigrants without full legal status in Spain. Other Spanish cities also hosted demonstrations.

Previously, such immigrants had access to free care in the public health system. From Saturday however only children, pregnant women and people needing emergency medical care will be eligible: others will have to pay.

Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government introduced the new restrictions as part of its austerity program to tackle the country's debt crisis.

But seven of Spain's 17 regional health authorities have already said they will not implement the measure and many doctors and nurses have insisted they will continue to treat those affected by the change for free.

Rights groups Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) and Amnesty International have also denounced the new measure as a violation of basic rights.

In a joint statement together with several other rights groups, they warned that the cuts “could cost lives, because they will leave thousands of people without access to the health system.”

And an Internet petition for Spanish health professionals vowing to stand by those affected by the change has so far attracted 1,885 signatures.

“My loyalty towards my patients does not allow me to fail in my ethical and professional duty,” says the online manifesto.

Health professionals were among those marching in Madrid and so too were some of those hit by the change.

“This is an act of rebellion against a totally unjust law,” 51-year-old Peruvian Rodrigo Rojas, told AFP.

Rojas said he had come to Spain 15 years ago and set up his own construction firm, which folded in 2009 when the country's property market collapsed.

Suddenly without a job, he had his residency permit withdrawn and he now found himself among the thousands denied full access to free health care.

“Immigrants have in their time been a cheap source of labor, and now that they are no longer of any use, they are being sent to the slaughterhouse,” he said.

“The reforms seems disastrous to me,” said another demonstrator, hospital worker Maria del Carmen.

In the wake of the outrage provoked by the measure, the government has given assurances that nobody will be abandoned.

“Nobody will be left without assistance,” Health Minister Ana Mato said on Wednesday.

“The national health system will continue to work for everybody who needs it. But those who do not have rights to it, which is to say those who do not hold a health card, will have to pay for that assistance.”

And where agreements are in place with immigrants' home countries, the bill will be sent there, says the government.

Another government measure designed to tackle the crisis also came into effect Saturday: the rate of Value-Added Tax (VAT) rose from 18 percent to 21 percent, an increase announced in July.

Spain has agreed to push through its austerity package in exchange for receiving a banking sector rescue loan of up to 100 billion euros (US$125 billion) from its eurozone partners.

Spanish banks have been weighed down with rising bad loans and repossessed real estate since the collapse of a property bubble in 2008, which has sent the jobless rate soaring to nearly 25 percent.

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