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Saturday, April 21, 2012
From Print Edition


MADRID: Spain's cash-strapped government on Friday approved reforms to scrap free medicine for pensioners and charge students higher fees, aiming to save an extra 10 billion euros ($13 billion) a year.


The reforms tread on sensitive ground since Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had promised to safeguard pensioners' purchasing power while cuts in health and education have already sparked street protests.


Health Minister Ana Mato and Education Minister Jose Ignacio Wert announced the reforms after a weekly cabinet meeting as the latest efforts to stabilise Spain's public finances, a big source of concern for the euro zone.


"Healthcare needs certain reforms to guarantee its sustainability," Mato said. "We know that for some citizens it is a difficult reform and demands sacrifices, which we want to be fair ones."


Traditionally Spaniards do not pay to visit the doctor and only pay part of the cost of medicine, with an exception for pensioners who currently pay nothing.


Now pensioners will have to pay 10 percent of the cost at the pharmacy, up to a maximum of 18 euros a month depending on their income. Spaniards in employment will see their contribution rise from 40 to 60 per cent of the cost of the medicine.


The government said three billion euros will be saved through education reforms, allowing regional governments to expand class sizes by 20 percent and raise university fees to an average 1,500 euros from 1,000 euros.


Spain's 17 regional governments account for more than half of all public expenditure because they are responsible for funding health, education and social care.


But in the past months, many regional governments have struggled to pay suppliers, leading to unrest among chemists and power cuts at schools.


By seeking savings in these sensitive sectors, however, the government has sparked a backlash.


The healthcare reform is "a change to the model of the national system, which will gradually degrade and which seeks to dismantle the public health system," said the opposition Socialist Party's health spokeswoman, Trinidad Jimenez.