Healthcare has emerged as one of the major issues in this election campaign, not least because of the vocal protests of many Czech health workers against the recent reforms launched by Health Minister, David Rath. A "week of unrest" staged by healthcare professionals drew to a close on Friday with a demonstration and march through the streets of Prague.
Organizers of the protest handed out stickers that read "I will not be the guinea pig of Doctor Rath," and led a donkey symbolizing the Health Minister through the city streets. Czech health workers were protesting what they see as a return to a centralized system of health care provision, including tighter limits on the types of treatment covered by health insurance.
Jakob Bucher, a representative of the General Practitioners' Association, worries about what that means for Czech patients.
"If you are out of this limit, you must pay all these bills yourself. It's only a mathematical operation. So the limit is some number. More, you pay, and nobody wants to know if it's necessary or not. So, this is the first big problem, I think."
The protest came days after Minister Rath and the Social Democrats, together with the Communists, pushed through a law that would see the conversion of 146 hospitals into non-profit institutions in coming years, and would deny health insurance contracts to hospitals that refuse to co-operate. Rath says he is trying to fix a system plagued by deficits and wasted resources.
But, Dr. David Marx, a pediatrician and faculty member at Charles University, sees the recent reforms as politically, rather than socially motivated.
"The health care policy needs to be prepared in a scientific way, not in a clearly political way, and the final goal of Dr. Rath to centralize health care provision will lead to a complete nationalization of the secondary health care system of hospitals, and we are afraid that the next steps after the elections if the Social Democrats would win would be the same tendency to centralize and to empower the system to the state even in primary health care."
Many of the protesters said that Friday's event represented the culmination of over a decade of dissatisfaction with consecutive governments' mismanagement of the healthcare sector, and was not intended as a political statement in spite of the fact that it was held one week before the election.
However, not all Czech medical organizations took part in the protests, nor do all see Rath's reforms as potentially detrimental to the healthcare system. Instead, some view the reforms as promoting standardized and equitable provision of health services. For his part, Minister Rath dismissed the doctors' "week of unrest" as a concealed part of the Civic Democrats' political campaign, and questioned the intentions behind their concerns.
"This strike, this demonstration staged by the richest in society is, to a certain extent, an insult to the citizens of this country who have to live on an average salary or a lower-than-average salary, because just before an election, these are really the very richest people who are demonstrating on our streets and squares."
Whether or not the organizers of Friday's demonstration were politically motivated, this weekend's elections will decide the fate of Minister Rath's reforms.
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