POLITICIANS AND HOSPITALS SYMPATHETIC, BUT RELUCTANT TO ADD DEBT TO SECTOR

Unions find no takers on pay demands

HEALTH sector unions have so far won little support for their demanded 30-percent pay rise for medical employees, but continue to meet with hospital representatives and wait for input from Prime Minister Robert Fico.

HEALTH sector unions have so far won little support for their demanded 30-percent pay rise for medical employees, but continue to meet with hospital representatives and wait for input from Prime Minister Robert Fico.

While politicians, health insurers and hospitals agree that medical staff are paid poorly, and that the country must find ways to prevent doctors and nurses from taking more lucrative jobs abroad, they also say Slovakia cannot afford to raise medical wages.

"We have to work within our real economic possibilities," said Jaroslav Šajty, president of the Association of Teaching Hospitals. "We want to increase salaries, but not at the expense of indebting hospitals."

Last year, debt within the health care sector rose to Sk6.8 billion crowns, of which Sk4.4 billion was owed by health care facilities under the Health Ministry. With Slovakia aiming to enter the euro-zone in 2009, analysts are warning that any such rises in state debt could cause the country to overshoot its fiscal targets to adopt the currency.

"If European institutions regard some hidden debts as unacceptable, we risk not fitting in under the [public finance] deficit and thus not adopting the euro in 2009," said UniCredit Bank analyst Viliam Pätoprstý.

Instead of raising medical salaries by 30 percent across the board, some ruling coalition politicians are suggesting paying performance bonuses to skilled professionals. "Such bonuses could help this country retain professionals that are currently leaving for posts abroad," said Slovak National Party MP Štefan Zelník.

The Health Ministry has not yet delivered a verdict on the union demands, but says it is "realistic" to gradually increase wages so that by 2010 doctors are earning three times the national average salary, and nurses 1.5 times the average. Ministry spokeswoman Silvia Balázsiková was unable to say where the ministry might find the necessary funds.

Health Minister Ivan Valentovič has suggested in the past that health insurance companies might help pay for the salary increases, but has been flatly refused by both state and private insurance houses.

"We cover the agreed extent of health care provided," said Petra Balážová of the Všeobecná state insurer, the country's largest. "It is up to each health care facility to decide how much it will pay in salaries."

Juraj Karpiš of the INESS economic think-tank in Bratislava agreed that a 30-percent pay hike was unrealistic given the sector's current resources, and added that the issue of salaries should not be decided at the central level at all. "That's the reason that decentralization was done in this country, so that hospital managers would have greater powers," he said.

However, hospitals are also saying they don't have the money, with the Association of Teaching Hospitals claiming that medical workers have already received a 20-percent rise, and the Association of Slovak Hospitals arguing that any further increases could put non-profit hospitals out of business.

The unions were to meet with representatives from the two groups on May 25 for further talks. Slovak Health Union president Anton Szalay added that medical employees were prepared to wait until June 15 for PM Fico to issue a standpoint on the matter.

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