Adam Gaffney at Dissent reports on how austerity is being used to slowly kill the institutions of of universal healthcare, arguably the most important (positive) political innovation to emerge from Europe in the 20th century:
The truly universal health care system, however, was in general a post–Second World War development and was usually the consequence of the work of labor and left-wing parties. Most Western European nations took one of two paths: gradual expansion of coverage until the system could fairly be called universal or the more abrupt creation of a truly socialized national health service. In Great Britain, the 1946 passage of the National Health Service Act brought about the British National Health Service. Financed through general taxes, it provided health care as a right, with medical services free at the point of service.
Most other nations, however, took a more incremental path. France, for instance, built upon its 1928 National Health Insurance system, passing successive pieces of legislation that covered larger and larger proportions of the population until, in 2000, the remaining 1 percent of the nation that was uninsured received coverage. Germany likewise built upon its nineteenth-century Bismarckian system to create a system of truly universal coverage. Greece was relatively late to the game. In 1934, it established a Social Security Organization that covered urban and industrial workers, which was expanded to agricultural workers in 1961. But it was the 1983 legislation of the newly elected Socialist Party that put into place a National Health Service (NHS), founded on the principles of universal access. Along similar lines, Spain built upon a 1942 health insurance law with successive expansions of coverage. This culminated in the 1980s, when through a number of measures the Spanish Socialist Party converted the health care system to a tax-based system with universal access and a largely public provision of care.
No doubt, as they entered the twenty-first century, all of these systems had their own flaws, their own inefficiencies, even their own inequities and injustices. But for the first time in human history, the poorest individuals could avail themselves of some of the most advanced medical care in the world without worry that their illness would bankrupt their family, and without the stigma of charity. A true right to health care had been legislated into existence. Universal health care, from this perspective, represented a truly massive and historical achievement.
[Gaffney then recounts the staggering cuts to healthcare in European periphery countries]. Although universal health care was a relatively recent achievement, it quickly came to be considered an intrinsic feature of the European welfare state. It is not, however, immutable. Universal health care everywhere arose through the process of political struggle, and it can be similarly unmade. It was generally the creation of parties of the Left, and was more likely to emerge, and to emerge earlier, in those countries with a strong tradition of labor unionism. As the balance of power shifts, it is not only possible, but indeed probable, that those elements that were fundamentally opposed to universal health care from its very conception will emerge to challenge it.
The right wing uses the cause of cost-containment and deficit reduction, combined with allegations of inefficiency, to chip away at the margins of these programs, to promote privatization and reductions in benefits, while at the same time avoiding a frontal rhetorical attack. Similarly, those who would undo universal health care in Europe begin by increasing the barriers to access (such as increased user fees or the denial of care to illegal immigrants), by cutting expenditures and reducing quality, by subtly changing the system away from universalism with changes in financing or benefit eligibility. Not to recognize that such measures could amount to the first step in a long process of unwinding the right to health care would be a dangerous mistake.