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France dumps holiday to pay for seniors' health

By Associated Press
Published November 7, 2003

PARIS - France's prime minister announced Thursday a $10.8-billion program for the elderly - financed in part by eliminating a national holiday - to improve health care and guard against catastrophes like the summer heat wave that killed nearly 15,000 people, many of them seniors.

Rival politicians and health care professionals criticized the plan from Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin as too little, too late. Also, France's bishops complained about the loss of the holiday, which falls on the Monday after the Christian festival of Pentecost.

The heat wave in August overloaded France's health care system and killed an estimated 14,800 people. Many of the victims were elderly who died alone, some while their families took traditional August vacations.

The ensuing scandal bruised the government of the center-right prime minister, who has been plummeting in the polls, and conservative President Jacques Chirac. There have been increasing rumors that Raffarin's days are numbered.

Raffarin brushed aside the speculation that he would resign, telling reporters, "The only response is action, and today you have the proof."

The extra day's work each year is to increase national economic production by 0.3 percent. Companies are to contribute 0.3 percent of the amount they pay in salaries to the elderly fund, Raffarin said.

The plan - to start in July - is expected to generate $9.8-billion over 41/2 years. The government will spend $10.8-billion on the elderly over the same period. The difference will be made up from other budget resources.

The program, which still requires parliamentary approval, also covers benefits for the handicapped.

Socialist Party chief Francois Hollande called the program "insufficient" and "badly financed." He said the program would not be needed if the government abandoned a proposed tax cut.

Rest home directors meeting in Reims decried what they said was insufficient funding for the plan.

Raffarin said the solidarity program would put France at the forefront of care for the elderly and handicapped in Europe.

The heat wave "revealed the extent to which we have a duty of action vis-a-vis elderly people in France," he said. He said France needs "an ambitious program so that these sad events that struck our nation are not repeated."

Parliament released a report in September blaming the deaths on chronically insufficient care for the elderly and a widespread failure by agencies and health services to work together. Nearly 80 percent of retirement facilities are short-staffed, Secretary of State for the Elderly Hubert Falco has said.

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