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France boosts health funding to offset public hospital crisis

Staff in public hospitals across the country have complained of exhaustion, low salaries and a critical lack of resources.
Staff in public hospitals across the country have complained of exhaustion, low salaries and a critical lack of resources. FRANCE 24 screen grab

The French state will take on €10 billion of public hospital debt over the next three years as part of an emergency package unveiled by the government on Wednesday in response to months of protests in the health sector.

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French hospital workers have been striking for months in protest over years of cutbacks they say have harmed care in a country with a public health system that was once the envy of the world.

In a bid to offset the crisis, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unveiled an emergency package on Wednesday “that will allow hospitals to reduce their deficit and rapidly recover the means to invest”.

Starting in 2020, the state will take on €10 billion in debt owed by public hospitals over three years, Edouard said.

Hospitals’ health insurance budget will increase by €1.5 billion over the same period, the prime minister added.

Public hospitals in France have been forced to cut €9 billion off their debts since 2005, leading to the scrapping of hundreds of beds and dozens of operating theatres while stagnant salaries have fueled a flight to the private sector.

In an effort to stem the staff hemorrhage, Health Minister Agnès Buzyn on Wednesday promised a “permanent” annual bonus of €800 for staff in the Paris region earning less than €1,900 per month.

“We need to recognise the particular situation in Paris and its close suburbs,” Buzyn said, pointing to the higher cost of living.

Other workers specialising in elderly care will get a €100 bonus per month starting next year, she said, while hospitals will also share an additional €200 million to pay other bonuses as they see fit.

New winter of discontent?

The protests began in March when emergency room staff, who complain of elderly patients being left for hours on trolleys in corridors while waiting for a bed, began strike action.

Over 260 emergency rooms nationwide are still affected by the work stoppages.

Staff in hospitals across the country have complained of exhaustion, low salaries, a lack of resources, and being swamped with paperwork.

The protests have created jitters in the government, which fears that hospital staff could band together with other disgruntled groups such as transport workers who are planning mass strike action in December over pension reforms.

President Emmanuel Macron is desperate to head off another winter of discontent, a year after the start of the Yellow Vest revolt.

Promising substantial investments last week, Macron said he had "heard the anger and the indignation over working conditions" in hospitals – though arguing that his centrist government had inherited an ailing system.

Three health plans in the past two years have failed to appease the anger of beleaguered hospital staff.

Earlier this year, Buzyn had announced an additional €750 million for hospitals over the next three years, but the amount was roundly rejected by staff as woefully insufficient.

‘Hugely diappointed’

On Wednesday, early reactions from doctors’ representatives suggested the government’s latest emergency package had also fallen short of expectations.

Christophe Prudhomme, spokesman for the French association of emergency doctors (AMUF), said the measures were “interesting” but were well short of budgetary requirements.

The government’s announcements “seem designed to drive a wedge between Paris and other regions”, said Orianne Plumet, head of the Inter-Urgences advocacy group, which also represents emergency workers, lamenting the failure to expand staff numbers and hospital beds.

Mireille Stivala, who heads the health branch at the CGT trade union, was equally scathing, claiming that the government’s measures would leave hospital workers “hugely disappointed and once again feeling slighted”.

Protesters are demanding €3.8 billion in emergency investment in public hospitals – twice the amount originally set aside in a draft 2020 budget currently before parliament.

On Thursday, the upper house of the parliament, the right-wing dominated Senate, threw out a draft social security bill at its first reading in protest over what some senators described as Macron's "disdain" for the workers in the sector.

Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire has warned that hiking health spending will mean having to make cuts elsewhere, with France's budget deficit already expected to breach an EU limit of 3 percent of GDP this year.

France is one of Europe's biggest spenders when it comes to healthcare.

In 2016, France spent 12 percent of its GDP on health, well above the western European average of 10 percent, and was also the country where the patient's share of the health bill was the lowest.               

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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