PATIENTS in Slovak hospitals should not have any unpleasant surprises this Christmas. Slovakia’s parliament, despite some reluctance and misgivings, enacted nearly all of the agreements incorporated into a memorandum between the doctors’ union and the government that ended weeks of protests and culminated in thousands of doctors leaving their posts at state-run hospitals on December 1.
“I believe we will be able to pass advent with peace in our souls and without any concerns about a further exodus of doctors,” said Marian Kollár, the head of the Medical Trade Unions’ Association (LOZ), as quoted by the Sme daily, after parliament approved legislation to halt the transformation of state-run hospitals into joint-stock companies, to modify the Labour Code as it applies to doctors’ working conditions, and to guarantee a two-step increase in the salaries of doctors and dentists working for state-run hospitals.
After a two-day debate the MPs passed the amendment to the law on health-care providers on December 14, putting into law all but one of the agreements reached between LOZ and the government that were in a memorandum signed on December 3.
The memorandum guaranteed the doctors a three-step salary increase, starting with an salary pegged to 1.05 to 1.6 times the average salary in the Slovak economy on January 1, 2012 and reaching 1.25 to 2.3 of the average salary in January 2013, depending on each doctor’s level of education and experience.
The memorandum also committed the government to amend the law to completely halt the transformation of state-run hospitals into joint-stock companies and to ensure that the Labour Code is observed in Slovak hospitals, particularly on overtime work and the maximum number of patients that can be handled by each doctor.
LOZ representatives attended the parliamentary debate in their white doctors’ coats and celebrated after the vote. A photograph of Kollár in the vestibule of parliament raising his arms with his fingers in V’s for victory, made the front pages of most Slovak dailies.
The approved amendment guarantees the doctors the first two of the three salary increases in January and July 2012, when the doctors’ salaries will reach a range of 1.2 to 1.9 times the average salary in the national economy. The doctors’ union will negotiate the third increase in salaries in January 2013 once a new government is in place following the March 2012 elections, Kollár told the media.
The amendment passed on December 14 changes the Labour Code so that it now states that doctors’ overtime work will be compensated with additional time off for educational purposes or by premiums paid with their salaries.
Strike alert remains
The parliamentary debate took place in a tense atmosphere because of the diverse opinions among the centre-right parties about halting the transformation of the hospitals into joint-stock companies and also because of a new strike alert declared by LOZ on December 10 unless parliament swiftly dealt with the commitments in the signed memorandum.
“The memorandum has been flagrantly questioned on the part of government politicians and MPs,” Kollár said as he explained why the doctors were ready to strike. He reiterated that the government and parliament must fulfil all agreements, including stopping the transformation plans.
Members of the Radičová cabinet were at pains to show that they “did their best” to see that all the doctors’ demands were fulfilled by parliament.
“MPs take their decisions freely and if Mr Kollár wants, he can go negotiate directly with them,” said Health Minister Ivan Uhliarik on December 12, as quoted by the TASR newswire.
Tension escalated further when a majority of members of parliament’s health-care committee refused to support an amendment proposed by MP Richard Raši from opposition party Smer to halt the transformation process, with only opposition MPs backing the amendment in committee.
LOZ reiterated that it would not accept the vote by parliament unless it dealt with the transformation issue, as that was one of the agreements in the memorandum, and threatened to strike. Smer also stated that it would vote for the overall amendment only if it included a provision halting the process.
“It is a preparation for a very cheap privatisation of hospitals,” stated Smer leader Robert Fico in explaining why his party opposed the transformation process.
In the end parliament passed Raši’s proposal on December 14, with the votes of MPs from Smer, two MPs from the opposition Slovak National Party (SNS), and four MPs from the Ordinary People faction. MPs from Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) party left the parliamentary chamber, lowering the quorum and allowing the amendment to have a majority.
The final consolidated amendment to the law on health-care providers was then passed by affirmative votes by MPs from Smer, two MPs from SNS, two independent MPs and MPs from Most-Híd party.
While Health Minister Uhliarik called on the doctors’ union to end the strike alert and “restore trust between doctors and patients” parliament’s action did not sway representatives of LOZ and they announced at a press conference on December 15 that the union would delay lifting its strike alert until the amendment was signed into law by President Ivan Gašparovič and published in the country’s collection of laws.
LOZ once again called on Uhliarik to resign as health minister or to be sacked.
“In this moment it is proper to repeat our previous proposal for the minister to leave his post since the president can use the strong mandate granted to him by the amendment to the constitution, and even without the prime minister’s proposal, he can immediately dismiss Ivan Uhliarik from his post as health minister,” the representatives of the doctors stated, as quoted by the SITA newswire.
President Gašparovič had not responded to the union’s request before The Slovak Spectator went to press on the evening of December 15.
19. Dec 2011 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani