Spending cuts undermine healthcare in eastern EU countries

07.12.11 @ 09:28

  1. By Valentina Pop
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BRUSSELS - Austerity measures in former Communist EU countries have taken a heavy toll on underpaid and overworked doctors, with a state of emergency still ongoing in Slovakia after a mass walk-out.

  • Slovakia had to borrow Czech army doctors to face the crisis (Photo: wikipedia)

The Slovak government is to meet on Wednesday (7 December) to discuss whether to lift the state of emergency after a deal was struck with the striking doctors. Some 1,600 medical staff resigned last week, prompting the crisis.

Three quarters of them agreed on Saturday to come back to work after the government promised a salary increase of 40 percent. But most of them had not done so by Tuesday pending an analysis of the new deal.

Neighbouring Czech Republic sent some 30 army doctors to help out, while hospitals in Poland and Austria were preparing to take Slovak patients.

The mass resignations come after years of brain-drain to wealthier countries. Lucia Hippova, a 27-year old doctor told AFP she was earning €430 a month in a small Slovak hospital and left for Germany where she started on €1,890. "After three years, my salary reached €3,200," she said.

A euro member since 2009, Slovakia is trying to cut its way from a 4.9 percent of GDP deficit to the eurozone limit of 3 percent by 2013.

Similar cuts in non-euro members Hungary and Romania could also provoke a Slovak-type medical crisis.

Istvan Eger, head of the Hungarian Medical Chamber, said a similar situation could soon arise in his country and asked doctors to refrain from going to work in Slovakia out of solidarity for striking peers.

Meanwhile, the Hungarian Trainee Doctors Federation is collecting letters of resignation from members to submit to the government on 31 December if the situation does not improve.

The Romanian Medical Council has also warned that it may follow the Slovak example after the government ignored theirdemands on the 2012 budget.

"Doctors have are exhausted beyond limits and cannot take it any more," the council said in a statement. It warned that the new fee envisaged by the government for next year, obliging patients to pay for part of their medical services, will hit the most vulnerable people: pensioners and chronic patients. The measure is being introduced in line with demands by the EU and the International Monetary Fund, which lent Romania €20 billion in 2009.

In neighbouring Bulgaria, the health care budget is already unable to cover the needs of its patients.

"Bulgaria's budget for 2012 allocates, yet again, just 4 percent of GDP for the health care sector, which falls a long way short of the money needed to guarantee security for the Bulgarian patients, high-quality services, prevention and access to modern treatment," Heath Protection, a patients' organisation, said.