The Catalan government has decided to close at least 40 primary healthcare centers - one in 10 of the total in the area - over the summer as part of its ongoing measures to cut regional health spending. The move will leave tens of thousands of people in dozens of municipalities without local doctors' and emergency-room services and, according to labor union estimates, having to travel up to 25 kilometers to receive treatment. Staff at the affected centers who are not on vacation will also be relocated.
The town halls affected by the measure are worried that the closures will be extended indefinitely beyond the summer due to the harsh cuts that Artur Mas' CiU Catalan nationalist bloc government plans to make in the sector, though it has yet to confirm such an extreme.
"The majority of closures will be of centers that will not reopen: the Generalitat has given the order to close 50 percent of continuous healthcare centers," warned Carme Navarro, the CCOO labor union's health chief.
Mas' government has forecast that it will cut 10 percent of Catalonia's healthcare budget - around 1 billion euros - and says the series of closures is currently in the planning stage.
"It is still being planned but we will guarantee quality healthcare at all times," said a regional health-department spokesperson.
At the moment, though, residents and the mayors of the affected municipalities do not believe them. The health department is maintaining a worrying silence over the future of the closed centers - it still hasn't decided on the total number of outpatients' departments that will close in August, nor whether the situation will extend beyond the summer.
"Not even they themselves know what will close: they're improvising according to the pressures and political party governing in each town hall," said the CCOO.
The announced closures are concentrated mainly in Barcelona province and affect primarily small- and medium-sized offices, with the Catalan government yet to specify how the cuts will affect the region's other provinces: Tarragona, Girona and Lleida.
As well as the outright closures, the health department has also elected to cut night-time opening hours in 33 centers, as well as close 13 centers at lunchtimes and 11 at weekends.
In all, 97 of the region's total of 368 outpatient departments will be affected - over 25 percent, with the best part of closures in the other three provinces still to be determined.
It is the first time that health centers have been shut down in Catalonia on such a massive scale over the quieter summer period. Demonstrations are being planned in several towns, such as Castellbisbal and Badia del Vallès, to protest the closures.
"They want to leave us without a center," said Javier García, a Castellbisbal resident who works at the local health center. "And the nearest emergency room is tens of kilometers along a very windy road. At night it can take more than 40 minutes. If there is an emergency... you won't get there."