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Health insurance : Italian surgeons down scalpels to protest austerity plan

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Italy’s public-sector doctors observed a one-day strike on Monday, notably postponing 40,000 surgical operations in protest at government austerity measures that will freeze hiring at hospitals.

Administrative employees and public-sector veterinarians also joined the strike, which did not affect emergency services. “We apologise to the citizens for the disturbances, (but) the precious good of public health is at stake,” said Massimo Cozza, head of the doctors’ union affiliated with Italy’s largest union federation, the left-wing CGIL.

The Italian Senate last week approved a two-year austerity plan for cuts totalling 24.9 billion euros (32 billion dollars) aimed at cleaning up public finances and reassuring financial markets.

The lower house Chamber of Deputies must vote on the plan, which will slash ministries’ budgets by 10 percent among other measures, by the end of the month.

Unions say the hiring freeze will lead to a shortfall of some 30,000 doctors and health workers over the next four years.

The health-sector branches of most of Italy’s smaller unions backed the strike, but the two other main unions, the Catholic CISL and the socialist UIL, did not.

Health Minister Ferruccio Fazio insisted Sunday that the plan “did not touch health care,” saying it did not call for budget “cuts” affecting the functioning of hospitals but instead targetted waste by reining in spending. He said hiring was frozen only in regions whose public health budgets were in the red.

Italy’s 20 regional governments are responsible for public health care services with funding from the health ministry.

Milan, July 19, 2010 (AFP)