MADRID – The decision by Spain’s richest man, multi-billionaire Zara owner Amancio Ortega, to donate several hundred million euros toward cancer treatment in the country’s public healthcare system has sparked a debate on handouts and taxes just as the country gears up for a triple election.
In 2017, the Ortega’s foundation donated some 320 million euros ($359 million) to the public healthcare system in a bid to modernize oncology departments across the country. The six-year plan is in the process of being implemented.
But, as Spaniards prepare to vote in municipal, regional and European parliamentary elections on Sunday, the leader of the left-wing Unidas Podemos (United We Can, in English), Pablo Iglesias, attacked the strategy and said: “a dignified democracy does not accept handouts from multi-billionaires.”
“We cannot allow the health of our children or of our parents to depend on the alms of a multi-billionaire,” he said of the majority owner of company Inditex, who ranks as the sixth richest man on the planet.
“Public healthcare cannot accept donations from Amancio Ortega,” Iglesias specified, urging instead for higher taxes on the rich to fund Spain’s health sector.
In the same speech, the Podemos leader accused the country’s wealthiest magnate of making the donations to hide alleged tax evasion, a point of view he shares with the Federation of Association in Defense of Public Healthcare (FADSP).
“We need people, powerful businesses that we have in our country to pay taxes and to pay them here, and with that money, the health administration will allocate the resources,” Dr. Manuel Martin, FADSP president, told Efe.
According to Martin, these types of economic organizations are experts in handling “tax avoidance,” which allows them to save money and not pay taxes “like everyone else.”
“Our health system is redistributive in nature,” he said. “Philanthropists can decide where to invest their contributions, which is a principle of inequality,” he added.
He suggested the reasoning behind Ortega’s donation was not as clear as similar donations made by people like Bill Gates or George Soros.
“They have generated huge capital with powerful business strategies and later want to soften their social image,” Dr. Martin said.
The 320 million-euro donation from the Amancio Ortega Foundation involves the purchase of more than 400 state-of-the-art devices to combat cancer in public hospitals across Spain.
These include, among others, the latest generation of linear accelerators that allow for personalized radiotherapy treatments.
“The innovative thing is that in addition to having a morphological image we will also have a functional image, that is, it will give us biological information on how the tumor is behaving during radiotherapy, something we have never had before,” Dr. Rosa Morera head of the Radiation Oncology service of the Madrid hospital of La Paz, told Efe.
That supposes, according to Morera, the power to radiate less healthy tissue than the one surrounding the tumor and make “a personalized design of its biology, which is key.”
The old equipment that most Spanish hospitals use has an average lifespan of 10 to 15 years.
“When one gets old it’s about taking money from anywhere,” says this specialist, lamenting that there was no date said by the government for a renovation of the technology in Spanish hospitals.
“From a personal and professional point of view, I publicly thank Mr. Amancio Ortega for the donation he has made, and I extend it to my colleagues, but the ones who really appreciate it are the patients, there is no one who has been bothered by this,” he ensures.
Around 100,000 people die from cancer every year in Spain at a cost to the public coffers of about 7 billion euros, equivalent to approximately 11% of health expenditure and 0.66% of GDP, according to the Spanish Association Against Cancer (AECC).
“In the end, the most important thing is to think about the people who will benefit from this equipment,” Isabel Martinez, spokesperson for the association, told Efe.
In 2018, more than 90% of AECC funds came from private sources.
“The responsibility of civil society is also important when contributing to the sustainability of the healthcare system in some way. Everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the system,” Martinez added.
The founder of the textile group Inditex created the Foundation that bears his name in 2001, when his company, which manages brands like Zara and Massimo Dutti, hit the stock market.
He focuses on education and social causes.
Ortega has assets worth $62.7 billion, according to the ranking of Forbes magazine, and the first in Spain.
The businessman owns 60% of Inditex, the parent company of Zara, which has 7,500 stores around the world, and he also makes investments in other sectors, such as real estate.