Health minister backpedals on co-payments for ambulances, wheelchairs and nutrition

Under original plan patients would have paid five euros per non-emergency transportation

Health Minister Ana Mato has definitively given up on a plan to introduce co-payment for certain public services with a lower priority, ministry sources told this newspaper.

These services include non-emergency ambulance transportation, prosthetic equipment such as wheelchairs or crutches and medical nutrition therapy products.

The same sources said that the decision was taken in December, before the State Council released a report questioning the savings that would be achieved by making people pay a fee for these services.

"We are not going to ask citizens for new efforts," said Mato later at a plenary meeting of the Health Advisory Council.

These three co-payments had been contemplated in a royal decree issued in April 2012 as a way to ensure the financial sustainability of the public health system. It was the same legislation that placed limits on illegal immigrants' access to free health care, and introduced co-payments for retired people's prescription drugs.

But while the two last measures have since been implemented, the former have not. Now, the Health Ministry claims that enough savings have been achieved, making further co-payment unnecessary.

The plan had originally been to charge patients five euros each way for every ambulance ride for non-emergency purposes, with a monthly limit depending on personal income. This would have affected people who require dialysis or physiotherapy on a regular basis.

A State Council report issued internally in November but released only last week questioned the financial benefits of such a measure.

The ministry had even contemplated charging for several types of prosthetic equipment (ranging from wheelchairs to walking sticks and implants) and for the specific products consumed by people with metabolism malfunctions who require medical nutrition therapy.

"The Popular Party (PP) has gone into electoral panic mode," said the Socialist health spokesman José Martínez Olmos. "This decision underscores their absurd policies on very sensitive issues. All the opposition groups said that these co-payments were clearly detrimental to people, and that they would not result in the desired savings. Now the PP is backtracking as part of a strategy to minimize the damage at the polls resulting from their anti-social policies."

Mato's U-turn leaves some questions up in the air. Some regions are already charging for wheelchairs and crutches, while others are not. And while the state will no longer be imposing the co-payments, it will apparently also not be forcing regional governments to stop doing so, either.

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