Thousands of doctors to quit over salaries

Martin Engel, photo: CTK

The Czech doctors’ union reports that roughly a fourth of the country’s 16,000 doctors have pledged to resign their positions through the “Thank You, We’re Leaving” campaign, which demands a rise in the base salaries of hospital doctors. If indeed that number of doctors goes through with the protest, nearly 40% of hospitals in the Czech Republic will be affected. But the Ministry of Health is not flinching. Christian Falvey has the story.

The “Děkujeme, odcházíme” campaign is a “thanks, but no thanks” protest by the Union of Czech Doctors attempting to force the hand of the Ministry of Health and secure up to three times the average national wage for physicians in state-run hospitals, i.e. a rise to Western European standards. Otherwise, they quit. The high number of doctors who are on board so far paints some unsettling images, like that of the Vysočina region for example, where, come March, 2011, public hospitals will retain only 20% of their physicians if all of the doctors who have pledged to quit do so. So far those doctors number 3,500, and the union expects at least another 500 to join their ranks.

The Health Minister Leoš Heger has yet to budge, however, and says - rather provocatively - that he expects most of the doctors to “come to their senses” and only several hundred to resign in the end. Indeed, at first sight the demands seem to fly in the face of the spirit of austerity with which the government has implemented wide-ranging cuts in every ministry and wage reductions for state employees. Dr. Martin Engel is the Chairman of the Czech Doctors’ Union.

Martin Engel, photo: CTK
“We don’t want the increase to come from the state budget, so it has nothing to do with that, we know exactly where to take the money from and that is directly from the health care system. We need to change the work of the State Institute for Drug Control and stop paying for needlessly expensive medicines and allowing money to be stolen left and right. It’s simple.”

The average salary for hospital doctors in the Czech Republic is around 50,000 crowns (an average that includes overtime and extra services); the campaign is seeking a base pay of 70,000, which would require that such reforms squeeze six billion out of the 290 billion crown health care system. Mr Heger has asked for patience, saying reforms require time, and he has asked the protesting physicians to concentrate on aiding those reforms, which he says will begin paying off for them in 2012.

Leoš Heger
“He can count on our support for reforms, I will cooperate on health care reform, but that is going to take many years. Meanwhile, the pay problem can be resolved in a week. These are two different subjects. Reform, yes – but calmly, and across the political spectrum so that it lasts, and another government doesn’t come in and change everything. I agree with that. But our money and reforms are two entirely different things.”

Regions are currently working with the ministry to find solutions, but holding back their crisis scenarios for now, until the actual number of resigning doctors is certain. The ministry has said that in the worst-case scenario, emergency reserve funds would have to be used to keep hospitals in the big cities operational. Some hospitals in other areas however will likely be reduced to emergency care, and some may close altogether.