The Milei Era: GPJ's Lucila Pellettieri explores the human costs of Argentina's political shift.

Saving Money, Costing Lives: The Faces of Argentina’s Health Care Cuts

Health care professionals, patients and union leaders say the measures taken by the government of Javier Milei are directly impacting access and quality of medical care.

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BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — Celeste Quintana, 32, circles her foot while she waits in a packed public hospital waiting room for her hematologist to call her.

Quintana lives with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system. In December 2023, after President Javier Milei took office, the government stopped sending her the medication for her chemotherapy. She managed to partially continue her treatment through individual donations, but that was often not enough; at one point, she underwent a chemo session with only half of the prescribed dosis.

Quintana took legal action against the government and successfully compelled it to supply her with three doses nearly five months later. But she doesn’t know what will happen after that, nor the health impacts of an interruption of her treatment.

“It was torture. At one point, I thought they would never give me the medication. I had given up,” Quintana says. “On top of the illness, I also have to fight the system.”

Along with Quintana, many health care professionals, patients and union supporters are also fighting the system: They agree that the Milei administration’s measures, like the health care spending reduction, are proving detrimental for medical care access and quality.

It started with the budget: The new administration opted to extend the 2023 budget without adjusting it for the 227.31% inflation experienced over the past 12 months. The impact on health care was drastic: In real terms, the government spent 35% less on health care in the first quarter of this year than it did during the same period in 2023, according to a report by the Centro de Economía Política Argentina (CEPA), a local think tank.

Besides, Milei deregulated how much private health care insurance providers can charge through a massive decree signed in December 2023 that either changed or revoked more than 300 sets of regulations. In greater Buenos Aires, which encompasses the city of Buenos Aires and 24 nearby cities, these prices have grown by 141% between December and April. These increases could lead users to depend on the already underfunded public health system.

However, the same government has taken legal action against the private providers to curb the increases. Earlier this month, the court ruled in favor of the government and ordered companies to revert prices to December 2023 levels adjusted for inflation. The companies are appealing the deadlines and it’s unclear when the ruling will become effective.

The austerity measures have also increased layoffs, which leave many workers without health coverage. From when Milei took office until February, according to the latest data available, employment fell by 0.6% in the public sector and by 1% in the private. In total, 84,313 jobs have disappeared. And in early April, the president’s spokesperson announced the termination of another 15,000 civil service contracts.

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Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Detail of X-rays attached to window glass at Hospital Nacional Profesor Alejandro Posadas.

Medicine shortage

Quintana is a beneficiary of the Dirección de Asistencia Directa por Situaciones Especiales (DADSE), a government agency that subsidizes medication and equipment for people without medical coverage. She isn’t the only one who’s stopped receiving medications.

The agency has stopped responding to patients since the change in administration, says Alexis Descourvieres, a member of Alianza Argentina de Pacientes, a nonprofit that advocates for health care rights to patients and people with disabilities. At least seven people who were receiving cancer treatment have died waiting for DADSE to resume sending medication, she adds.

“In some cases, you live with pain or you live with disability. It’s hard on your body, or you have no strength. In other cases, people die,” Descourvieres says. “They are saving [money] on people’s lives, where the need is greatest.”

DADSE falls under the authority of the national Ministry of Health, which did not agree to an interview with Global Press Journal. However, it did issue a press release stating that the agency is working to respond to requests for oncology medication in order of urgency.

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The exterior of Hospital Nacional Profesor Alejandro Posadas in El Palomar, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

An old X-ray machine and medication samples at Hospital Nacional Profesor Alejandro Posadas.

“[Adding] the anguish and suffering of abandonment to the anguish and suffering caused by illness is unnecessary,” Descourvieres says.

This comes in a context in which non-subsidized medication was already more expensive: The previous government had agreements with pharmaceutical companies that allowed it to keep its prices in check until October 2023, a policy that was not continued under Milei.

“Today, many people are discontinuing their treatments. We are now seeing hospitalizations due to chronic disease decompensation,” says Pablo Maciel, president of the Asociación Sindical de Profesionales de la Salud, a union of health care professionals in Buenos Aires province.

Prescription medicine sales fell 16% in January this year, compared to the same month in 2023. This means that up to 7 million treatments could have been dropped, according to a report from Centro de Profesionales Farmacéuticos Argentinos, an association of pharmacists.

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Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Celeste Quintana poses for a portrait at Hospital de Clínicas José de San Martín in the city of Buenos Aires.

Around 16 kilometers (10 miles) from where Quintana is receiving treatment, at another public health center, Hospital Nacional Profesor Alejandro Posadas, a doctor who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired, has to get creative in diagnosing and treating patients with the limited resources available.

At times she deals with broken equipment, such as a CT scanner that was damaged for five months earlier this year, or an endoscope to treat pancreatic disease that has been unusable for a year. At times there isn’t enough medication to treat hospitalized patients, she says.

“It is absurd that in 2024, we have to regress to practicing prehistoric medicine, when we have an enormous number of technological advances that should make it easier to resolve people’s problems,” she says.

While she recognizes that the public health system has faced difficulties before the new administration, the lack of access to medication was felt abruptly this year, with the budget cuts. “Not being able to afford medication was already happening. It’s not like we were exempt from that, but in the last few months, it has been terrible,” she says.

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Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

A doctor at Hospital Nacional Profesor Alejandro Posadas, who requested to remain anonymous to protect her job, looks through a window at the hospital in El Palomar, Buenos Aires province, Argentina.

In the first quarter of this year, the hospital’s budget was 24% less than the previous year, according to the report by the Centro de Economía Política Argentina (CEPA).

Via email, a spokesperson for Hospital Nacional Profesor Alejandro Posadas said the hospital is operating normally, without interruption to any service.

Meanwhile, Quintana remains alarmed.

“When [Milei] won, I was stressed out, crying in my bed. Some people told me, ‘Nothing’s going to happen. He’s not going to touch health care. He can’t,’” she says. “If they cut public health care, I’m done for.”

Lucila Pellettieri is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.


Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.

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