Cuts in health services stemming from Europe's economic downturn are having measurable negative effects on the health of the population in many countries, Council of Europe (CoE) Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks said Thursday.
Universal access to health care has been undermined by austerity measures and the economic crisis, Muiznieks commented in his latest Human Rights Comment.
The right to health is guaranteed by international and European human rights conventions, and Muiznieks urged European governments to remember they have a duty to maintain health and social protection floors which are available to "everybody at all times", he commented.
Health care spending in Europe began a downward slope in 2010, reversing a long-term upward trend, the commissioner noted. At the same time, user charges have often gone up, making it more difficult for many people to receive the care they need.
During a visit to Spain in June 2013, Muiznieks reviewed the effects of austerity measures on health services that had previously been based on universal and free access. The crisis had resulted in massive cuts in medical staff and funding of public health centres, the closure of many emergency services and the introduction of "co-payment" schemes under which consumers are asked to contribute to the cost of their care.
In Greece, bailout packages stipulated that public health spending had to be capped at 6 percent of GDP, far below the European Union (EU) average of 9 percent in 2010. Recent research on Greece highlights drastic cuts in public hospital budgets, pharmaceutical spending and funding for mental health care along with spiralling out-of-pocket fees, Muiznieks continued.
The prevalence of major depression increased 2.5 times between 2008 and 2011 while the number of suicides rose by 45 percent between 2007 and 2011. Infant mortality increased by 43 percent from 2008 to 2010 after a long-term fall, raising concerns about access to pre-natal care by pregnant women.
Although the right to health is not part of the European Convention on Human Rights, its provisions on the right to life and the prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment have been applied in cases related to the quality of care and access to it. For example, case-law from the European Court of Human Rights on prisoners' access to health care is quite extensive, Muiznieks stated. He maintained that the extreme effects of austerity on accessibility to health care could be contested in the Court.
"Universal access to health care is about respecting everyone's human dignity," he stated. "We should start viewing health inequalities through a human rights perspective by putting the person at the centre of health service delivery. There are good reasons for carrying out reforms to make health services more effective. It is also important to address wasteful practices and corruption in health care.
"However, such reforms should not simply amount to cost-cutting. They should always aim to deliver quality care to the entire population without excessive user charges. Governments have a duty to maintain health and social protection floors which are available to everybody at all times," Muiznieks concluded.