Médecine pour le Peuple: Defending the right to health for all

Muhammed Shabeer

We speak to Dr. Hanne Bosselaers from Médecine pour le Peuple (MPLP) – an initiative of the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA) – which seeks to provide accessible and quality health and medical care to the people. Médecine pour le Peuple (MPLP) operates 11 multidisciplinary medical action centers with about 200 staff members caring for around 25,000 patients.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the weaknesses and limitations of the healthcare systems of many advanced states. The underfunding and privatization of public healthcare in several countries and the patent regimes have kept away millions from accessing healthcare, including essential medicines, worldwide. Peoples Dispatch talks to Dr. Hanne Bosselaers from Médecine pour le Peuple (MPLP) – an initiative of the Workers Party of Belgium (PTB/PVDA) – which seeks to provide accessible and quality health and medical care to the common people of Belgium. In this interview, she explains the origin, aims and major interventions of MPLP in Belgium and abroad in its pursuit of making healthcare accessible to the people.

Peoples Dispatch (PD): What are the goals of Médecine pour le Peuple? What have been your major campaigns in Belgium?

Dr. Hanne Bosselaers (HB): The goal of Médecine pour le Peuple is to defend the right to health for all in a healthy socialist society. Our 11 medical action centers provide high-quality, free healthcare. We study the impact of social determinants on our patients’ health to raise awareness about the systemic causes of their health problems. We use the strategy of “empowerment” to organize people in local collective struggles for better living and working conditions. For example, we had a successful struggle against a big company polluting the residential area around one of our centers with lead. 

Recently, in Antwerp, we directed a citywide struggle against the project of a polluting highway too close to densely populated neighborhoods. The project was closed down after almost 10 years of struggle. 

As doctors and scientists, we can strengthen the struggle with studies and arguments. We raise awareness and mobilize our patients and the broader public. On the national level, our main campaigns are about access to free primary health care, against the privatization of public health services and for access to essential drugs.

PD: What is your take on the ongoing COVID-19 crisis? In your opinion, how will we be able to tackle this?

HB: Now that COVID-19 has rapidly spread to Europe and the US, we witness the vulnerability of more privatized health systems. As their health systems are unable to coordinate adequate collective responses, it is not surprising that the measures taken by European governments are calling on people’s individual responsibilities. Social distancing has become the cornerstone of their COVID-19 mitigation plans. They are unable to put in place adequate testing and contact tracing, interventions that need strong public services that are close to the people.

What we can learn from the global COVID-19 pandemic is that strong public health systems are needed. They alone have the resilience to address massive health threats with the necessary collective responsese. Privatization of health services and individualization of risks might further undermine our ability to address this and future global pandemics.

PD: Can you briefly outline the origin of Médecine pour le Peuple and talk about some of the major interventions by the organization?

HB: During the international student protests of 1968, the new Marxist organization, “Workers Party of Belgium” (first called Amada-TPO, later PTB-PVDA) was created. Two young doctors from Amada-TPO opened the first “Médecine pour le Peuple” clinic in 1971 in Hoboken, a red workers’ neighborhood in Antwerp. The main objective at that time was to serve the people with free and quality medical care by doctors who worked at a median worker’s wage.

50 years later, Médecine pour le Peuple, an initiative of PTB-PVDA, has grown into a national organization with 11 multidisciplinary medical action centers with about 200 staff members caring for around 25,000 patients.

From the beginning, MPLP has taken part in the important social and political struggles in Belgium. The first important struggle that MPLP led was against the organization of liberal doctors for free medical care. Our doctors were frequently attacked by the this body, for example by the suspension of their license to practice, lawsuits etc.

With the strong support of our patients and the public, we managed to defend the people’s right to access free health care successfully. Today 360,000 Belgian citizens have free primary care in about 177 medical centers (including the 11 MPLP centers) that are paid per capita.

In 2003, we started our struggle for accessible drugs. A new drug to lower blood cholesterol levels was introduced in Belgium. Social security provided this expensive drug to select patients under strict criteria. Our doctors discovered that patients with a high risk of dying of a heart attack didn’t have access to this drug, and that the price set by the pharmaceutical companies was excessive. That was the beginning of our national struggle against Big Pharma that is sucking our social security dry with high-priced essential drugs.

PD: What has been the attitude of the mainstream political parties in the country towards your initiative?

HB: Mainstream political parties have opposed our initiative from the beginning. The fact that we provide a vital service and raise the consciousness of our public about their rights makes us a dangerous enemy for the establishment.

For example, in 2017, the minister of health – a liberal doctor – tried to attack all medical centers providing free primary care in a severe audit about the costs of these centers. She suspended the creation of new centers for a full year. In the end, she lost this battle in the eyes of the public as a study on Belgian social insurance showed that our type of medical centers provide better quality care at a lower cost per patient. It shows us the importance of constant campaigning to maintain our right to provide free care to our patients.

PD: What is your analysis of the state policy on health in Belgium and the policies of the European Union on this front?

HB: Our campaign for the “Kiwi-model”, a model of public procurement of essential drugs used in New Zealand, has led to important reductions in the price of several vaccines and other drugs since 2004. Over the last 10 years, the public and academics showed more and more sympathy and respect for our work as MPLP and for our national campaigns. This is especially so since the last elections in 2019, with the best ever result for the Marxist left in Belgium. The mainstream parties still try to discredit us, but we represent a growing force. At the European level, we are an active member of the “European Health Network” involved in the struggle against commercialization of public healthcare. 

The European struggle is not yet united. European national governments use different strategies to divide workers and prevent social struggle on the European-level and have been successful so far.

In the 2019 elections, we joined the European parliament with our first councillor. We will continue to share examples of successful struggles in Belgium, and to push towards a unified European struggle for health. 

PD: What are your initiatives towards international cooperation for people’s health and your proposals for putting people before profits in these times of climate crisis and global outbreak of epidemics?

HB: Through our partner Viva Salud, we cooperate and partner with health movements in Palestine, Congo, the Philippines and Latin America. Third World Health Aid (now Viva Salud) was created in 1985, when several of our doctors went to provide medical aid in the Palestinian refugee camps of Lebanon during the war.

Many of our doctors have international experience. Personally, I went to work in the Palestinian Gaza strip in 2013 to create a twin project between our medical center in Molenbeek and a local Palestinian health center. 

MPLP is an internationalist organization. We express our solidarity with people in the struggle for health all over the world by sending our ambassadors to create direct links with people in different countries and by participation in international campaigns such as the climate struggle. We see ourselves as contributors to the unification of a global struggle for a society based on people, not on profit.