Hospitals face crisis

“For the last two weeks, the health-care system in Poland has been a major media topic. And not without reason. A new law governing doctors’ working hours, which could take effect on Jan. 1, may cause a labor catastrophe in hospitals throughout Poland.
The bill was approved by Sejm (the Polish parliament) last summer in order to adapt Polish legislation to EU law. Its consequence will be a 48-hour work week maximum for doctors ? which may lead to a permanent lack of medics in Polish hospitals.

According to the new law, the doctors may work longer, up to 72 hours, only if they agree to do so. The problem is how much money they should be paid for the additional hours.

According to Donald Tusk’s government, the new legislation will mean up to 5 bln zloty (1.38 bln euro) in new expenses for hospitals and, as a consequence, for the state budget. The former government led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski intended to cover this cost from a special unemployment fund, but the new government does not accept this solution.

That’s why Minister of Health Ewa Kopacz wants to postpone the implementation of the new law for at least six months. This should give the government time to calculate the funding available in the National Health Fund, the central institution financing health care in Poland. Many doctors do not accept the new work-week law.

Konstanty Radziwil, chairman of the Polish Chamber of Physicians and Dentists (NIL), argues that the rescheduling would not solve anything and would be followed by hundreds of lawsuits by doctors before Polish courts and the European Court of Justice.

This could lead to high compensation settlements for the doctors.
The directive of the European Commission which led Poland to change its law has been challenged and violated by several EU countries. Portugal recently proposed a more flexible version of the directive.

It could be accepted soon, which might help the Tusk government change the Polish law. But even so, any change can be vetoed by President Lech Kaczynski. Health Minister Kopacz is trying to negotiate the dispute with doctors’ organizations, and the end of this week may produce a government decision.

If the decision is not accepted by the doctors, a crisis in the Polish health care system could occur. Some already are warning that hospitals will not have enough employees to treat their patients.

Some of the doctors say they can accept a solution proposed by Kopacz, but they demand immediate and high pay raises ? to a level of three average monthly wages, or 7 thousand zloty (1,940 euro). Many of them work up to 90 hours a week and earn six times less, for example, than in the United Kingdom. Their disappointment with the new law could lead to a continuation of strikes which Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s government had to cope with.

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