Six of Slovakia's largest hospitals struggling with protesting staff

As Hungary gets a new government Slovakia is gearing up for elections in two months time and a strike by health workers is causing plenty of controversy during the pre-election period. The medical personnel at six large Slovak hospitals are in their fourth week of strike action. They are asking for a 25 percent pay raise and an end to privatization of their institutions. From Bratislava, Anca Dragu reports.

Ambulances bring patients to the emergency rooms. They are an important part of any hospital, and lately they have become even more important in six of the largest hospitals in Slovakia as they are the only department whose personnel have not gone on strike. For many years doctors and nurses complained about their low salaries and bad working conditions. The healthcare system has made several attempts at reforms but with mixed results. Medical personnel ran out of patience at the beginning of April and decided to go on strike:

Kvetoslava Klauteniova is a doctor with the Faculty Hospital in Bratislava where the strike began:

"I cannot agree with the way the health care sector reform is being implemented. I agree that it was necessary to launch a reform, but look how our health care looks like. I just cannot support it and nobody can deny us the right to strike."

A doctor receives a salary of about 600-700 euro a month, depending on their specialization and years of practice. This means that a junior doctor starts with slightly more than 350 euro per month, which is almost 40 percent lower than the average salary in Slovakia. Doctors received a 10 percent pay raise at the end of last year and during the current strike the management offered them another 8 percent. As for nurses, they have two options - be satisfied with 300-400 euro per month in Slovakia or to go to work in Austria, UK, the Czech Republic or the Scandinavian countries where they receive three to four times more money than they receive here.

Slovak patients, however, do not seem very interested in the financial problems of doctors or nurses. Most of the patients are nostalgic for the times when healthcare was free for everyone. They don't want to hear that hospitals are oversized and people simply eat pills, judging from the very high figure of drug consumption in Slovakia.

"Health care services are really poor, doctors are not professional either. I think this strike should be turned the other way round and it should not be the employees, but the patients who should go on strike."

At the beginning of the strike, hospitals' managers tried to minimize the scale of the strike saying that only a quarter of the doctors actually refused to work. The general manager of the faculty hospital in Bratislava even mentioned his institution has too many doctors so about 700 might be fired anyway. The managers accused the trade unions leaders of playing a dirty political game for the benefit of the largest opposition party two months before elections. The Media quoted the Health Minister as delivering damaging words to strikers during a meeting with the hospitals' managers. Even private doctors criticized their colleagues for the bad timing of this strike. Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda visited the Oncological Institute in Bratislava and talked to doctors.

"Of course they complained about their problems but I explained to them that we must keep on reforming the system because it is the only way for the hospitals to recover financially. I also talked to them about drawing money from the European Union in order to upgrade the medical equipment and train the medical personnel, concluded Dzurinda."

Unimpressed by his words 40,000 doctors and nurses from smaller hospitals across Slovakia announced they might join the strike if the management doesn't increase its current offer of an 8 percent pay raise.