With less than a month in office, the newly appointed Czech Health Minister, Marie Souckova, is forced to tackle a problem that is driving doctors and nurses out of the country - low salaries. According to the Czech Chamber of Doctors, more and more hospitals are facing problems, and in order to cope with their staff leaving they're employing doctors and nurses from abroad.
Although salaries for doctors and nurses in state-run hospitals have increased significantly in the past four years, with the latest increase of 18% in March 2002, many health staff say this is not enough. Doctors and nurses who work long hours are still complaining that their salaries do not equal the amount of work they do and fail to give them a proper standard of living. According to David Rath, the head of the Czech Chamber of Doctors - which is one of the strongest trade union organisations in the country - it is no surprise that doctors are attracted by the much more rewarding salaries offered in neighbouring Germany.
"Next year and the year after next, we have to come up with a solution to the problem and if we fail to do that, we will have to come to terms with the fact that at least 30 to 50 percent of doctors in the Czech Republic will be foreigners."
In fact, many Czech hospitals have already solved their problems by employing doctors from mainly Slovakia and Ukraine. In order to find a solution to what some call a potential crisis in the health sector, Health Minister Souckova is currently in discussion with Czech doctors and nurses to find a way to increase their salaries:
"In order to come up with a realistic solution, we have to adopt the concept of gradually increasing salaries through regular adjustments in line with inflation."
That, Mrs Souckova hopes, will be one way to increase salaries. Another measure would be to divide the system of paying nurses and doctors into more categories. At the moment, there are 12 different wage categories, divided according to the health workers' age, experience, length of employment and other factors. Mrs Souckova hopes to increase that to sixteen from the start of next year in order to give doctors and nurses a chance of being included in higher wage categories. But whilst discussion is still underway over what measures are to be adopted, one thing is clear - a wage increase will lead to higher expenditure in the state budget, a criticism that the Social Democratic government has had to face for several years and a sacrifice that Mrs Souckova is well aware of and willing to take:
"If we adopt the sixteen category system, there is no doubt that it will affect the state budget and with that the budget of the Health Ministry."
So it looks like there is no argument over the need to increase the wages of nurses and doctors and whilst the health workers feel the situation to be critical, their trade unions are not planning any strikes. They say they're confident that talks with the new health minister will be successful.
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