A 53-YEAR old woman was given a six month conditional prison sentence for giving a €5 bribe to a physician from Nitra for a confirmation of temporary sick-leave in early November. The local prosecution is investigating dozens of other patients over the transgression of giving bribe to a physician. The physician is being prosecuted for the crime of taking a bribe, and if found guilty, he might be locked behind bars from three to eight years, according to a SITA newswire report.
As much as 48 percent of all the bribery cases that finally made it to courts involved payments lower than €20, and only 5 percent of the court decisions pertained to large-scale corruption in connection with public procurement, European Union funding or elections, according to Transparency International Slovensko (TIS), the transparency watchdog, which looked into corruption-related decisions of the Specialised Criminal Court between 2012 and 2014.
Political ethics watchdogs keep warning that the health-care sector is one of those areas of public life most prone to corrupt behaviour. Many patients in Slovakia still feel that if they “forget” a bottle of expensive alcohol or home-made pastry on the table of their physician, they somehow ensure for themselves better care.
There are few in this country who haven’t heard stories about envelopes with cash going into the pockets of physicians for moving a patient higher up on a surgery waiting list or for care to which actually everyone is entitled in the country. The problem is that these cases do not get reported frequently enough to authorities, who do not punish frequently enough those who abuse people’s concern for their health or that of those they love. Thus even physicians who never take bribes, work long hours and are often underpaid – whose number certainly exceeds many times that of the corrupt ones – have to work in an atmosphere of moral decay.
With that said, petty corruption is far from being the main problem of Slovakia’s health-care sector, which has been for the past two decades described as notoriously financially underfed. As the shady purchase of an overpriced computed tomography (CT) device by the Piešťany Hospital of Alexander Winter suggests, it is not the lack of money, but rather where it flows, that might be the biggest problem. Health Minister Zuzana Zvolenská and Parliamentary Deputy Speaker Renáta Zmajkovičová, a key Smer official who sat at the top of the hospital’s supervisory board, saw their heads roll shortly after the Sme daily and the private television station Markíza broke the story on the hospital buying the CT scanner with a price tag three times higher than similar devices in the Czech Republic.
One would like to believe that the promptness of Prime Minister Robert Fico in calling on Zvolenská and Zmajkovičová to step down is a sign of newly gained corruption intolerance within the Smer top-management. Yet, before jumping to hasty conclusions or indulging in false optimism, perhaps it is good to remind ourselves of the fact that it might be just a theatrical gesture ahead of the municipal elections. Or even more so, Fico might not want too much inquiry into what state-controlled hospitals bought and from whom.
“It is not excluded that the firm Medical Group, [the company which won the suspicious tender], was proposed by someone from Smer for all the hospitals which run under the Ministry of Health,” said former health minister Ivan Uhliarik, a deputy of the opposition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH).
The opposition parties are now also calling for the head of Smer strongman, Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška, for what they call his links to Medical Group SK.
Paška denied any involvement and plans to turn to the court over what he calls libel and false accusations. He claims that he ended his activities there as a minority shareholder 13 years ago.
Will the procurement process be properly investigated, along with the history of deals that went to Medical Group SK? If someone has seriously erred in this or some other shady deal, for example by depriving the health sector of hundreds of thousands of euros, will the person get a six-month conditional sentence like the woman who gave a €5 bribe to her physician?