December 2001, Argentina. The Argentine economy is in ruins, the peso-denominated bank accounts of its middles classes have been frozen in the corralito as it is colloquially referred to, while the foreign-denominated bank accounts of its wealthy elite are protected.
Downtown in Argentinas second largest city, Córdoba, a private medical clinic is on its last legs after its doctor owners clean out the coffers leaving its nurses and staff unpaid.
So begins an ownership tale that would see the Clínica Junín medical clinic pass through a series of owners and ghost companies while its medical services are reduced to almost zero.
What followed was eventual saviour by its workers, who unpaid for more than a year but with no other hope of finding paid employment, begin to run the clinic as a cooperative, changing its name to Cooperativa de Trabajo de la Salud Junín. For many of the female nurses there was no other option, their husbands had lost their jobs in the economic collapse and they had become the sole breadwinner.
For veteran nurse Ana María Barrionuevo, whose marriage crumbled during this upheaval, it was the support from outsiders that kept her going as she moved in with first relatives and then into rundown rental accommodation.
When we took the clinic none of us had a single cent in our pockets. And suddenly these young people from several left wing political parties, social movements, and from the university would help us with our strike fund, she recounted. It was really not much money but, at the time it seemed like lots of money for us, do you know what I mean? From having nothing for more than a year to then having the community come out in droves to help you out, to give you a hand, to give you a few pesos to help you out … no, no, really, it is what kept us going, what gave us the energy in those early days to keep fighting for this.
A decade on the cooperative is the fastest growing medical clinic in the province. We managed to transform this place from the bottom up. I’m talking about everything here, in what we produce affordable healthcare delivery. In how we deliver health to those without obras sociales or private health insurance, in how we re-capitalized this clinic with our own revenues…, explains Alejandro Torres, a co-founder and treasurer of the cooperative. We don’t overcharge for coming to our clinic. A lot of people think because you pay more you get better service. This is not correct. Charging more and privatizing health is really about making a profit, it is not really about caring for patients… We have shown that you can offer health service at an economic rate, an accessible rate, and that everyone has a right to health.
* Thank you to Euricse postdoctoral research fellow, Marcelo Vieta, for assistance with this story.