Sofia has turned its back on 80 million euros from the EU recovery plan earmarked for the construction of a proton center for the treatment of oncological diseases in children, sparking a conflict between the government and doctors.
According to Bulgarian experts who treat oncological diseases, the government made a “very costly mistake”.
A proton accelerator is a type of radiation therapy that uses an external beam of protons instead of X-rays to attack only the tumor, making it gentler and more effective because it preserves healthy adjacent tissue.
The technology is very suitable for children because the radioactive irradiation is at much lower doses than traditional radiotherapy.
The current government places the blame on the previous interim government appointed by President Rumen Radev in 2022, saying the proton center project had already failed last year.
The Ministry of Health told Euractiv Bulgaria that the proton accelerator project remained a priority.
“The fact that it is unlikely to be financed by recovery and sustainability plan funds due to missed deadlines does not mean that the project will not go ahead. The government has the political will to build such a center to meet the needs of Bulgarian patients, which will be achieved using budget funds,” the ministry commented.
However, there are no concrete plans to start construction. At the end of September, the government removed the construction of a proton therapy center for the treatment of pediatric hematology/oncology patients from the list of projects supported by the Recovery and Resilience Plan, citing delays by the interim government.
Finance Minister Asen Vasilev then explained that the project could not be implemented on time with EU funding and that the money would have to be allocated from the state budget.
The project was initially estimated at 95 million euros, of which 80 million euros was to come from the recovery plan.
Medical professionals and the National Patients’ Organization fear that Bulgaria will lose EU money, while at the same time Bulgarian taxpayers’ money will be wasted.
The Ministry of Health clarified that there were already negotiations with Finance Minister Vasilev so that the project would not be forgotten.
The desire is there, but the deadlines are tough
According to the ministry, around 600 patients a year in Bulgaria need proton therapy, but there is nowhere to get it in any country in the Balkan region.
The treatment is very expensive – it costs more than €20,000 to treat a patient, which is now covered by the National Health Insurance Fund and paid by Bulgaria to hospitals abroad.
Currently, there are around 30 proton therapy centers operating in 14 European countries: France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland .
The one in Bulgaria was supposed to be the first in the Balkans.
Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov emphasized on September 29 that the government had not given up on the project, even with about a year of delay, but that due to the strict deadline of 2026 for the completion of all funded projects as part of the recovery plan, national funding will have to be sought.
However, the question is whether sufficient national funds will be found and how long the delay will be. Public procurement and necessary procedures cannot take place until financing is found.
In 2022, a group of scientists announced that funding would be sought for a pilot program to make Burgas in Bulgaria the first and probably only city in the Balkans where a proton accelerator will operate for the treatment of children with cancer.
They argued that it is unacceptable that an EU member state with so many good oncologists does not have the necessary equipment to treat themselves, thus forcing patients to seek treatment abroad. Varna was also a candidate for such a health center, but the capital, Sofia, was included in the European Commission’s plan.
Experts rant against government
Professor Veselin Parvanova, director of the radiotherapy clinic in Sofia “Prof. Ivan Chernozemski,” told Euractiv Bulgaria that “the decision to redirect the funding of the proton center is illogical and political.”
She explained that the hospital was prepared to put out a tender for the purchase of a suitable machine, but then got an unpleasant surprise from the government.
She said this project was created by medical specialists in 2019 and was released for public debate, but has now been abandoned without discussion, either with the doctors who developed the project or with the public.
The chairman of the Bulgarian Patients’ Forum, Ivan Dimitrov, supported the doctors. According to him, “for a government, there should be no higher priority than the health of the people”.
“A finance minister decides to stop construction and healthcare-related projects, and the biggest tragedy is that the Council of Ministers agrees. This means that the government tends to say that health care is not a priority,” Dimitrov said.
(By Antonia Kotseva, Krassen Nikolov | Editing by Vasiliki Angouridi/Zoran Radosavljevic)