Social Democrat aim to “abolish” health fees in regional hospitals raises practitioners’ ire

Health care fees of 30, 60 and 90 crowns introduced earlier this year at Czech surgeries, hospitals, and emergency wards have remained a major issue among many Czechs and came to the forefront in last week’s regional elections. In the run-up to the vote, the Social Democrats – who trounced the ruling parties - promised to “abolish” fees for patients at regional hospitals by covering expenditures from regional coffers. But it turns out keeping that promise may not be such a good idea.

Last weekend the Social Democrats scored a resounding victory in regional elections in the Czech Republic and one reason cited by many pundits was the party’s stance on health care fees. The fees were introduced at the beginning of 2008 as part of the government’s reforms, but have proven a sore spot among many Czechs long used to visiting the doctor’s for free. In the run-up to the election, the opposition Social Democrats promised to derail the current system, at least in part, by covering fees at regional hospitals from regional coffers. But that promise now has many in the medical profession up in arms. Earlier I spoke to Václav Šmatlák, the chairman of the General Practitioners Association:

“Doctors in the Czech Republic are arguing strongly against this act by these new Social Democratic in regional governments, as it would be very unfair to other hospitals and facilities, namely those not owned by the regions. So we are strongly arguing and warning against this.”

Václav Šmatlák also says that private practitioners and hospitals would not be the only ones discriminated against: patients in Prague – the only region where elections were not now held – would see no such plan implemented.

“Anyone living in Prague would be excluded from this: there is no Social Democratic government in Prague. So it would be very unfair and I think it is very disputable, if not an outright illegal act.”

Mr Šmatlák also confirmed that the matter was being pursued with the country’s anti-trust office, which itself warned on Tuesday that the plan – barring a loophole - could breach EU regulations. Meanwhile, the country’s health minister, Tomáš Julínek has also struck back: he said this week that the only way to change health fees was by changing the law itself. He made clear that - in his view - the Social Democrats’ plan had not been at all thought-through, calling it demagogy. But he said above all it would unfairly favour one group of patients over another. For their part, some regional Social Democrats have already said they will first wait to see how the proposal is put together, stressing they have no intention of breaking the law.