MADRID – Some 300 people blocked a ring road in the Spanish capital Saturday to protest spending cuts that will leave large numbers of illegal immigrants without access to free health care.
Many undocumented immigrants who do not contribute taxes to social security are, as of Saturday, to lose the national health cards that had entitled them to free treatment
The decision contradicts a pillar of Spain's welfare state — free health care for anyone in need — and it comes as the country struggles with 25 percent unemployment and massive financial problems.
The government expects to save €1.5 billion ($1.9 billion) a year with the measure. It puts the number of people affected at 150,000, although media reports say the real figure could reach 900,000.
Protests over the measure have taken place in towns and cities across Spain in recent days.
Christoph Napene of Senegal was among those blocking the road in Madrid on Saturday. The 46-year-old said he's been unable to find a job in Spain and thus unable to apply for legal residency.
"I've had strong stomach pains for over a week and have an appointment with a doctor on Monday," said Napene, whose work skills include teaching French. "We'll see what happens."
The measure allows for some exceptions: care during pregnancy, childbirth and post-birth emergency, and serious illness or accident.
"In any case, foreigners under the age of 18 will continue to receive health care under the same conditions as Spanish nationals," a ministry statement said.
Manuel Cervera, health care spokesman for the ruling Popular party, said illegal immigrants could still have access to treatment, but they will have to pay for it, either now or later.
If immigrants lack insurance or their countries don't have special deals with Spain, they will be billed for treatment once they get a job and start paying into the social security system, Cervera said.
He also noted that each of Spain's 17 semi-autonomous regions retained responsibility on how to implement the payment requirements of the new measure.
But many of the people protesting the plan did not seem reassured.
"I know a lot of people who will suffer as a result of this action," said Abuy Nfubea, organizer of Spain's Pan-African Movement, which he said represented some 5,000 members.
Spain is in a double-dip recession, spurred largely by a real estate crash in 2008.
It has been trying to avoid following Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus in having to ask for an international financial bailout.