Slovakia forces doctors to work as it rules out extra budget funds

By bne IntelliNews November 30, 2011

bne -

Slovakia declared a state of emergency on November 29 in a bid to prevent the collapse of its health service, as it claims that the need to consolidate the budget means it cannot satisfy the pay demands of 2,000 doctors who have handed in their resignations. The move by the government will mean doctors that follow up their decision to quit - which is due to take effect on December 1 - could face stiff penalties, including prison.

Just as in other countries in the region, Slovak doctors working in public hospitals have been demanding a pay rise for some time now. Their union is asking for a hike of €700 per month, but the government has said it can afford no more than €300, reports AP. The health ministry has said that the increase is the maximum possible as the country faces an economic slowdown on the back of the sovereign debt crisis. The state of emergency at 15 hospitals means the doctors must stay at their jobs or face fines or even prison terms.

Prime Minister Iveta Radicova announced the measure following an emergency cabinet meeting. Calling the situation "very serious," Radicova said she agrees the doctors salaries are "inadequate," but that the government cannot afford to increase its offer because of the debt crisis in Europe. "Any further raise above the offered €300 would be populist irresponsibility, because the government can't afford it," Health Minister Ivan Uhliarik said on November 28, adding that it is still unclear how many doctors would change their minds and accept the offer. He also admitted that he has asked neighbouring countries to send doctors to help.

For their part, the doctors say that on top of compensation, they are also protesting about the state of the country's health system overall. "Slovak health care is collapsing even without the mass exodus of doctors," deputy chairman of the Medical Trade Union Association, Peter Visolajsky, told AFP. "The hospitals are understaffed [and] there are not enough young doctors because the job is not attractive to young people. One-third of medical students don't want to stay in Slovakia after they graduate."

It's not hard to see why. The average monthly salary of a young doctor in Slovakia is €550-600, he estimates, while experienced specialists earn no more than €1,000-1,200.

However, with the government lacking a majority in parliament since its ruling coalition collapsed in October over the vote on expanding the Eurozone bailout fund, it would be hard pressed to push any larger deal through parliament anyway. The main opposition Smer party has already illustrated its political immaturity, and, given that it's expected to win snap elections set for March, is hardly likely to vote through a measure that would leave the next government with a huge funding headache.

The Slovak Medical Chamber said in a statement that the declaration of the state of emergency is "inadequate" and won't solve the problem. The organisation also called for Uhliarik to resign. However, with the country facing increased belt-tightening in expectation of a slowdown in economic growth in 2012, the daily Sme says that the medical profession is losing the support of the man in the street. "In times in which the real income of most Slovaks is sinking, the doctors are being promised a third more," the paper writes. "Most voters don't have a doctor in the family. And where the clinics are supposed to get the money to finance this is also a matter of controversy... With each day that passes, the doctors are losing more of the public's respect. There was a time when doctors, teachers and judges were held in high esteem. The doctors' trade union is running the risk that those times become nothing more than a melancholic memory."

At the same time, the situation will hardly help the Slovaks accept the higher contribution that their country finally agreed to make towards bailing out fellow profligate Eurozone members such as Greece.

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