'Healthcare for all is a daily fight': Belgian Health Minister responds to WHO criticism

'Healthcare for all is a daily fight': Belgian Health Minister responds to WHO criticism
Health and Social Affairs minister Frank Vandenbroucke talks to a nurse during a visit to the NIDCAP (Newborn Individualized Developmental Care and Assessment Program). Credit: Belga / Didier Lebrun

In response to a report showing Belgium performs worse than other EU countries when it comes to the health gap, the country's Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke recognised that there is still a lot of work to be done.

A report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) showed that the impact of (out-of-pocket) healthcare costs in Belgium weighs more heavily on vulnerable families than in other Western European countries. In 2020, 5.2% of Belgian households could not afford basic necessities due to their medical costs, while the poorest families postpone care because of financial reasons.

"There is a large health inequality between the socially weakest group and the rest of the population," Vandenbroucke affirmed in a statement. "The health gap in the population gradually grows the further people are from the top social group."

In the use and access to the healthcare system, there is also a gap between people in the middle and upper classes. "Policies should therefore not be based on a simple division between 'the most vulnerable' and the rest," he added.

Influenced by pandemic

In his statement, Vandenbroucke stressed that the conclusions of the report were from 2020, a year driven by the Covid-19 health crisis, which influenced the findings, as it led to the postponement of care.

"During this period, the government also paid attention to the accessibility of specific measures," he noted, from free vaccination to the reimbursement of Covid-19 self-tests for low-income households.

He argued that since taking office in the autumn of 2020, the Federal Government has "kicked into action" to make healthcare more accessible to all — including preventing lower-income patients from having to pay the advance medical bill before being reimbursed themselves — while substantial investment has been made in oral and dental care.

But aside from investing in care, he noted Belgium should also dare to reform it. He explained that, looking at mental health care, while psychological help has become cheaper, mental health networks must also pay extra attention to their offer for vulnerable groups and give them the necessary priority.

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In the coming months, further "important reforms" will be launched, including in general medicine, to further improve equal and affordable access to "the best possible care."

However, Vandenbroucke recognised that the work is not yet complete. "Reducing the health gap and providing the best possible healthcare for all is a fight, every day," he said. "All those who want to join the fight for accessible and affordable health care will find an ally in me."

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