Friday 15 December 2017

Cuts to vital health services not confined to Ireland as bailouts sweep across Europe

Ben Sills and  Rodney Jefferson

Twelve-year-old Alonso Arroyo is worried about his friend Dario.

Doctors in Spain, where the government is cutting health spending while paying €23.5bn to bail out its third-largest bank, stopped Dario's prescription of the €2,000-a-month growth hormone both boys need to stop their bodies degenerating because of a genetic condition. Alonso doesn't know his treatment was pulled too.

"We've developed capitalism to the point where it's eating us," said his father, Jose Andres Arroyo, who's been unemployed since his trucking firm in Madrid folded three years ago. "How did we do this? We've trashed the European welfare state."

The two Spanish boys, who also have learning disabilities because their illness slowed down brain development, have never heard of government bonds.

They don't know that their country's banks ploughed €300bn into property developments, many of which are empty, or that Greek politicians lied about their debt.

With the European financial crisis now in its third year, spending considered sacred in the good times is becoming expendable as governments weigh the needs of their most vulnerable against the threat of losing access to debt markets.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is cutting about €7bn of healthcare spending as part of a €45bn programme of reductions and tax increases aimed at regaining the confidence of investors and lowering the country's borrowing costs.

The bill for bailing out Bankia, which paid former Chairman Rodrigo Rato more than €2m last year, is undermining that effort, sending yields on Spanish 10-year debt to a record 548 basis points more than German bunds on June 1.

Alonso and Dario are focused on keeping up with schoolwork and the daily struggle to hold back the effects of Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic disorder that hampers muscle development and causes constant hunger cravings.

They follow strict diets and exercise regimes. Until now, they've had daily hormone injections to retain basic mobility and stave off the morbid obesity that the condition can cause.

"Is Dario going to get really fat?" Alonso asks his mother, Elena Escalante.

He's a smiling kid who plays video games obsessively, supports five different soccer clubs and says he spends every waking moment fighting the urge to eat. When his parents talk politics he goes quiet, buries his face in his arms. His mother stretches out her hand. He squeezes it without looking up.

"He knows something's going on, but we haven't told him about the final decision," Escalante said. Without the hormone treatment, "he'll slow down, physically and psychologically. The year you lose, you don't get it back."

While Europe's commitment to solidarity may remain as politicians and voters from London to Paris to Athens question austerity measures, the ability to pay for it is diminishing.

Political philosophy

"It's not a fundamental change in political philosophy, it's how we cut back what we do," said Mark Goldring, chief executive officer of Mencap, a UK charity for people with learning disabilities. "People are losing the opportunity to live a full life. Little cuts in lots of directions can cause a great amount of pain."

Like the Spanish boys, Paula Leonard, who lives in a west London suburb, doesn't know anything about the debt crisis or the measures David Cameron says are needed to fix it.

The 48-year-old, who has Down Syndrome, rarely speaks and needs constant care. The day-care centre she has attended since she was a child is threatened with closure.

Her mother is part of a group challenging it in the courts, claiming it unlawfully reduces the service without adequate consultation. The case was filed in the High Court in London in April.

"The mentally handicapped have no voice at all, they only have their parents," June Leonard, (76), a retired community nurse, said in an interview from her home in Hillingdon, the London district that's reorganising day-care services.

"We're all concerned about what will happen to our sons and daughters. They are just swept under the carpet."

Public spending is falling as leaders and investors demand deficit reduction. Total expenditure by the 27 European Union governments averaged 50.6pc of gross domestic product in 2010 and is set to decline to 48.9pc this year, according to the European Commission's Economic Forecast for Spring 2012.

Ms Leonard, a widow with three other adult children, said if the centre, four miles from her home, closes and Paula has to go to a new location further away, it may bring forward the time when she has to move into more costly full-time care.

"I know the time is coming when Paula might have to go into care and I'm dreading it," Ms Leonard said. "I need the day centre to keep us going. It's absolutely essential."

In Ireland, more than 100 parents and carers of children with special needs marched on the Dail on April 24 to protest moves they claim are aimed at eliminating benefits for children with disabilities.

Deirdre Kiernan, (44), who has a daughter Kate, (8), with autism and Down Syndrome, attended the protest. She hasn't had her benefits reduced, though is concerned they will be. The family receives €309 a month in help, plus an annual payment of €1,700 due in June.

"Once one little cut starts, where is it going to stop?" said Ms Kiernan. "It will eventually reach us all and we are all going to have to suffer through the stress, the financial loss and the stress of worrying if we will ever get it back.

Back in Spain, Escalante, Alonso's mother, and her husband have known many people with the same syndrome through their work with the Spanish Prader-Willi Association and they've seen sufferers without hormone treatment grow morbidly obese.

Arroyo says he fears that without the treatment, Alonso's weight will balloon within a year and his cognitive functions will deteriorate.

His doubts about the European social model the family thought would protect their son are mixed with anger at those he says bear the real responsibility, such as the former Bankia chairman.

"They are cutting the one thing that gives him a standard of living somewhere near the other kids his age just to enrich Rodrigo Rato and four friends," Arroyo said. "Maybe they could just enrich themselves a bit less." (Bloomberg)

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