The Dangers of Privatizing Health Care in Argentina

The Dangers of Privatizing Health Care in Argentina
Fecha de publicación: 
16 February 2024
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in November, the country's health insurance economy was left on shaky ground.  

The election of the self-declared anarcho-capitalist—who was vocal about his promise to deregulate the economy by adopting the U.S. dollar as Argentina's official currency, eliminating the central bank and cutting back on state spending, among other drastic changes—left the country's long-delicate economy and already record-setting three-digit inflation in disarray. The Argentine peso was devalued by 55%, fuel went up 60%, the cost of beef soared 73%, and the price of diapers doubled. 

"Today I have to fill up with petrol and I will see the increase then," Buenos Aires resident Paula Di Marzo told the Buenos Aires Times in December. "But petrol increases have been coming in recent weeks so I am already expecting a big hike." 

Even before he took office, Milei vowed to also increase the privatization of state-owned companies, saying that "everything that can be in the hands of the private sector will be in the hands of the private sector," to Bueno Aires station Radio Mitre on November 20. 

In one of Milei's first decisions as head of state, the populist politician signed a so-called mega-decree on December 20. The significant and widespread shift in Argentina's policy revoked or altered more than 300 norms across government portfolios, a substantial step toward his previously announced plan to shake up the country's economy. 

We expect that, during his presidency, the role of private health providers will increase, which could heighten health inequality in the country

Health care was not spared. 

As part of the decree, price caps and controls on the costs of private health insurance plans were eliminated, leaving them to shoot up as much as 40%. It was an increase providers said was necessary due to their own operations costs having skyrocketed over the last four years in response to inflation. Similar caps were removed from drug prices, too, giving pharmaceutical companies the freedom to charge whatever they want, meaning fewer people will "be able to afford their medication amid an already economically constraint environment," according to Fitch Solutions' BMI, a research firm that provides macroeconomic, industry, and financial market analysis. 

The president's comments and initial decisions have left health and economic experts concerned, particularly for the 40% of the population that already lives in poverty. Since Milei took office and began to implement his promised changes, one presenter on national television commented on the idea of skipping meals as a way for families to deal with financial woes, while another told the story of a boy who wasn't affected by the increase in bus fare because he had started riding a horse to school. 

"We expect that, during his presidency, the role of private health providers will increase, which could heighten health inequality in the country and make health care unaffordable for the majority of the population," said BMI. 

A demonstrator holds a placard that reads "The hunger doesn't wait."

A demonstrator holds a placard that reads "the hunger doesn't wait" during a protest, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 5, 2024. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian


Some 61% of people in Argentina currently have private plans, but the soaring cost of living and diminished purchasing power is quickly leaving many of them more than skint and wondering how they will continue to pay for their health care. 

Additional pressure on the public health system is anticipated as a result, and medical journal the BMJ has expressed concern that expected cuts to the public health budget will put access at risk, "leading to issues such as overstretched outpatient and inpatient services and long waiting lists." 

The BMJ analysis also predicts "these budget cuts will lead to decreased health worker salaries and, consequently, may provoke strikes across the country, potentially limiting access to care for many individuals." 

But some experts don't see Milei's intended changes to Argentina's health system resonating with the public. Eric D. Carter, a professor of geography and global health at Minnesota's Macalester College, wrote on the academic site The Conversation that "Argentinians have mostly positive feelings toward public health institutions and the people who work in them, coupled with intense disdain for the political class." 

A survey he carried out during the pandemic alongside Maria Laura Cordero, a social and community health specialist from Argentina, found around 67% of those surveyed approved of the performance of the health sector, compared with 22% approval of political leadership during the pandemic. 

Concerns with popularity could be what make Milei do an about-face when it comes to health care

It would be unpopular, he notes in his piece on The Conversation, to dismantle "the public health sector in favor of market mechanisms like a voucher system to pay for health or putting public hospitals in competition with one another, as Milei has suggested."

Concerns with popularity could be what make Milei do an about-face when it comes to health care. 

In the final days of his presidential campaign, the Argentinian president said in a video that he would no longer look to privatize the country's entire health system. After his election, Milei also went back on a previous promise he had made to get rid of the Ministry of Health

In the end, it might not be up to the president. Thousands took to the streets of Buenos Aires on December 27 to protest the mega-degree that allowed, among other things, the cost of private health care and medications in the country to soar. Several civic groups also filed a court motion to have the package declared unconstitutional. 

On January 3, a court in Argentina suspended the labor law reforms in Milei's mega-decree until they could be properly considered by Congress. Some of the measures, it said, appeared to be "repressive or punitive in nature." 

If the same were to happen to the package's health norms, it would provide Argentinians with a sliver of hope that health care might not be completely out of reach. 

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