France unlocks 1.5 bn euros to ease hospital strains

Paris (AFP) –


The French government unveiled Wednesday bonuses for thousands of nurses as part of an emergency investment plan in the nation's hospital system, where anger has been growing in the face of heavy workloads and staffing shortages.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said hospitals would get an additional 1.5 billion euros ($1.66 billion) over the next three years.

The money aims to ease strains on a system that has seen growing numbers of patients heading to emergency rooms for only minor or routine ailments.

Some 40,000 nurses and careworkers in Paris and nearby suburbs earning less than 1,900 euros a month will now get annual bonuses of 800 euros to compensate surging costs of living, Health Minister Agnes Buzyn said at a press conference alongside Philippe.

"We must recognise the specific situation of Paris," Buzyn said, acknowledging that housing, child care and other costs "weigh disproportionately on some careworkers' spending power."

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

The measures come after thousands of doctors and other hospital workers staged protests across the country on November 14, demanding budget increases after years of cutbacks which they say are jeopardising care.

Buzyn had already announced earlier this year an additional 750 million euros for hospitals over the next three years, following months of protests and strike actions.

But the amount was roundly rejected by staff as woefully insufficient.

The government is under heavy pressure to improve living standards as it embarks on the next phase of President Emmanuel Macron's reform drive, including a contentious overhaul of the pension system.

Unions have already called an indefinite train and Paris metro strike against the pension reform starting December 5, and are hoping to tap into the anger of the "yellow vest" protesters, who marked the first anniversary of their movement last weekend.

Hospital staff have already called a new demonstration for November 30, and trainee hospital doctors are planning a strike starting December 10.

- 'We have heard them' -

"Health workers cannot take it any more... and we have heard them," Philippe said, saying the government was ready to invest "significantly".

He said the government would immediately unlock 400 million euros of hospital credits frozen earlier this year, while vowing to reduce administrative paperwork and other tasks.

The state will also take on 10 billion euros of hospital debt, giving the system the ability to take on new loans for investments.

Hospitals have racked up some 30 billion euros in debt, which Philippe blamed on previous governments effectively giving "state guarantees" to a range of public entities while refusing to tackle their growing debt piles.

But Philippe rejected claims that the government was irresponsibly adding to the state's debt pile, which at 99 percent of France's GDP, remains far above the eurozone limit of 60 percent.

The government has already been forced to give 10 billion euros in tax cuts and wage boosts for low-income households in response to the "yellow vests" revolt.

It has also pledged to absorb 35 billion euros of debt held by rail operator SNCF as part of its privatisation.

"My goal is not to keep increasing, indefinitely and unwisely, the French public debt," Philippe said.

"On the contrary, it's to maintain it at a level that our nation can sustain," he said.