What will happen to Hungarian health care?

More and more people are convinced that Viktor Orbán has lost his sense of reality and as a result is making decisions that may have grave consequences for the country and even his own party’s popularity.

Just lately he underestimated student reaction to his hasty introduction of tuition fees and the lowering of the number of scholarships available. He insisted to the very end on the introduction of voter registration, although surely many people must have warned him that it might have serious international consequences.

His latest foray into unreality is the decision that public employees who due to their age are entitled to receive pensions must be discharged from their jobs beginning on January 31, continuously as the law specifies. This law affects a lot of people,  including all employees of elementary and middle schools, medical personnel, judges, prosecutors, and members of the armed forces. The only exceptions are college instructors and researchers employed by state financed colleges and universities. Anyone who wants to contest this ruling must make a request in writing; from the wording of the law that was published in Magyar Közlöny (no. 184; December 29, 2012) it sounds as if individual exceptions will be hard to come by.

Actually, the bill proposing this legislation was already voted on by the Hungarian Parliament on December 17, but it went pretty well unnoticed until Viktor Orbán met the so-called Council of Elderly Affairs. At the time I read the newspaper articles on this meeting, but most of the reporters concentrated on some silly expressions of Orbán, according to whom the Hungarian economy is like a wasp that has a big abdomen yet still can fly and, mixing metaphors, like a live fish that can swim upstream and the dead one that goes with the current. The articles said little about how Orbán replied to a question about the dire situation that might result from this decision in the medical profession.

The question came from Dr. László Iván (age 80), a Fidesz member of parliament who seems to be extremely fit both physically and mentally. Mind you, he doesn’t have to worry about the new law because politicians are exempt. We learned, for example, that Sándor Pintér, who was a policeman before he became a politician and who retired from the police force at the age of 48, now receives 150,000 forints in addition to the millions he makes as a minister. Today, thanks to new Orbán governmental policy, policemen and soldiers cannot retire early.

László Iván, a doctor and a university professor, was particularly interested in the medical profession. It is a well known fact that there is a serious shortage of physicians and that many practicing doctors are over the retirement age. He asked Orbán to extend the compulsory retirement age to 70 for doctors. Orbán eventually met Iván “halfway.” Doctors will still have to ask permission from the government to stay until the age of 70. They will not, however, be able to draw both their salaries and their pensions. He promised to raise their salaries to compensate for their financial loss. (Would they really be so naive as to believe this promise?)

I noted earlier that college teachers and researchers employed in institutes of higher learning are exempt, but it is not at all clear whether research institutes financed by the state directly or indirectly but not attached to a university are exempt. The Union of  Scientists and Innovators interpreted the law as applicable to, for example, research institutes attached to the Academy of Sciences. They considered the decapitation of the research institutes to be the death of Hungarian science. Can you imagine scientists and researchers being kicked out of their labs at the age of 62 and being forced to sit with their grandchildren on a bench on the playground? Lunacy!

The various medical organizations frantically ran to the undersecretary in charge of health care, Miklós Szócska, but he wasn’t moved. He announced that any fear of the collapse of Hungarian health care is baseless. “There is no danger to the functioning of  the public health system.” (Three years ago Szócska was the hope of the medical establishment, but since then physicians came to realize that their hope in Szócska and in Orbán was misplaced.) At the meeting everybody asked for a blanket exemption from the regulation for the entire medical profession. Orbán refused to budge. They will have to make individual requests, and by the grace of Viktor Orbán perhaps they can stay.

So, by January 31, up to 15,000 requests will have to be processed. The situation currently is as follows. There are 35,000 practicing physicians and a quarter of them have already passed retirement age while another 42% will have to retire within ten years. In addition, about 3,500 nurses will have to retire unless there is some kind of resolution to this impasse. Perhaps the physicians will gather their courage and, learning from the activism of the students, express their dissatisfaction in some more forceful way. One must add that last year almost 1,000 younger doctors left Hungary and 1,600 physicians and nurses indicated their desire to work abroad.

Young doctors on the move

Young doctors on the move

The situation is a bit better in elementary and high schools, but even there 7,000 people will have to be discharged. In certain schools it might cause problems. I heard of a school where about half of the teaching staff is over 62. But at least here there is the hope that they will be required to leave only at the end of the school year.

All this doesn’t seem to phase Viktor Orbán. Alas, when everything depends on one man who can act without restraint this is what happens.