VILNIUS - Lithuania's medical personnel, exasperated with their efforts to win a pay hike, have resolved to stage a general strike on May 17. The labor union initiative to walk off work was almost unanimously approved by medical staff, according to a nationwide healthcare poll conducted last weekend.
Doctors claimed they would provide only emergency health assistance while on strike and would continue until the government agreed to fulfill their demand and raise salaries by 50 percent this year.
Medics claim they are earning less than the average Lithuanian employee. According to union data, the average doctor's salary last year was 1,400 litas (405 euros) before taxes, while nurses earned up to 800 litas a month. Supporters of the strike argue that such salaries do not coincide with the medics' level of education or the responsibility and significance of their work.
Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas poured oil into the fire when he submitted alternative figures to union leaders and members of the Seimas (Lithuania's parliament) last week. The head of government said that medical workers were actually earning 2,479 litas a month, double the average in Lithuania, as a result of consistent growth over the past three years.
Brazauskas' words provoked the wrath of medical staff, since he failed to emphasize that doctors who indeed earn such salaries work multiple jobs, which medical workers claim has led to stress, fatigue, poor performance and a "brain drain."
Medical unions called for the salary demands to start in May. The government, however, has limited its promise to a 24 percent increase.
Medical workers have balked at this number and believe the government can come up with the 100 million litas required to meet their demands. They have suggested that the government redistribute funds throughout the healthcare system as one way of solving the standoff.
The Health Ministry announced that, in order to raise salaries by 50 percent, an additional 350 million litas would be required 's money the budget doesn't have. Health Minister Zilvinas Padaiga hopes that medical personnel will change its minds and look for more productive ways to improve the situation.
Moreover, doctors are demanding that the government observe the major provision in the Lithuanian Health Program. This provision states that the healthcare system must receive no less than 5 percent of the gross domestic product, and that medical salaries must be raised by at least 50 percent in 2005.
Others, however, argue that doctors have disregarded the state's overall economic situation and drawn too much attention to their problems. They also say the doctors' actions might cause copy-cat protests in other budget spheres.
"Nobody doubts that a doctor's work is very hard 's it's also obvious what disastrous effects the country might face due to increasing emigration in search for a better life. However, emphasizing the same aspects, the doctors belittle those representing other professions," said Vytautas Radzvilas, a political scientist from Vilnius University.
Rytis Juozapavicius, director of Transparency International in Lithuania, said that an increase in salaries would not solve the widespread trend to accept additional payments from patients.
"While deliberating on the demand for a salary increase, it is necessary to consider what needs to be done with nonofficial salaries. Higher wages in the healthcare system surely would not break the trend, which was fostered for decades, toward additional reimbursement. And the medical staff would not stop taking it," Juozapavicius told the Elta news agency.
Last autumn Transperancy International initiated a public awareness commercial on TV dealing with anticorruption. The video urged society to stop bribing doctors.
"At least five doctors criticized us for daring to show such things 's the money is essential to support their families, and they consider it legally earned. From conversations with doctors, we learned that nonofficial wages sometimes comprise up to 30 percent of the doctor's total income," Juozapavicius added.
Transperancy International data showed that the practice of accepting unofficial reimbursements is widespread. The research paper "Corruption in Lithuania's Regions and Municipalities" in 2004 revealed that 76 percent of respondents saw a doctor in 2004 and 32 percent of those offered under-the-table compensation. Transperancy International claimed that most patients did this on their own initiative.
SoDra, a social insurance fund, claims there are about 11,000 doctors working in Lithuanian health institutions, of which 6,758 have one job with an average monthly salary of 1,621 litas and 3,285 have two jobs and an average monthly income of 3,731 litas.
Another 751 doctors, according to SoDra, worked more than two jobs and were earning an average of 4,715 litas.