On Friday, some 10,000 healthcare workers rallied in Prague to protest against the policies of Health Minister David Rath. Private practitioners, dentists, pharmacists and patients' associations protested against the minister's radical reforms which they say are proving destructive for the system and dangerous for patients. Over 100,000 people signed a petition demanding David Rath's dismissal. Minister Rath belittled the protest as mere pre-election propaganda of the opposition Civic Democrats. Meanwhile, amid growing problems in the sector and rising controversy surrounding the ministry, healthcare workers are planning an all-out action.
Friday was not a lucky day for Health Minister David Rath. As thousands of protesters were getting ready for the rally, Minister Rath had prepared a counterattack - to reveal allegations that Euro MPs for his arch-enemies, the Civic Democrats, had used EU money as well as funds from the state health insurer, VZP, to finance the party's election meetings.
But Mr Rath was overtaken by the pharmaceutical wholesaler Pharmos which announced on Friday morning that it was going to stop delivering medicines to indebted state-run hospitals after an attempt at bribery by a health ministry official. Instead of launching a new assault against the opposition, as he had hoped, Minister Rath was forced onto the defensive.
"When I received the information I called on Pharmos to submit concrete documents to prove the allegations. I sent a letter to them on Friday and asked them to meet me and explain themselves. Unless the company submits evidence, I will be forced to take legal action against the firm."
Pharmos is one of four pharmaceutical wholesalers which recently decided to stop deliveries to three state-run hospitals, because of overdue payments for medicines. Pharmos then decided to resume its deliveries but now it has changed its mind again after being offered, as it says, a dodgy deal by the ministry.
The debt of the three teaching hospitals, two in Prague and one in Brno, has been estimated at 2 billion crowns (83 million dollars). Mr Rath said he would like them to pay back all their debts by the June parliamentary elections. He has asked the finance ministry for help in bailing out the hospitals.
As though all this was not enough, the head of the Chamber of Dentists Jiri Pekarek announced on Sunday that dissatisfied healthcare workers are considering taking stronger action in May, just one month before the elections. The association of pharmacies, which went on a separate strike in January over a reduction in their profit margins, are ready to join the protest, the association's head Lubomir Chudoba said.
"It's up to individual pharmacies but if the minister continues to tell lies and lead a smear campaign against us, then we need to tell the public that there is an irresponsible person heading the ministry, and we'll have to resort to further protest action."
Health Minister David Rath was appointed in October last year as the 12th health minister in just 16 years. As the June election draws close, with no sign of an end to this very public and damaging conflict, the ruling Social Democrats may start getting nervous that it could be more than just Dr Rath's career that could be at stake.
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