Unrest in the education and health care sectors

The Latvian health and education ministries have provoked trade union protests after proposing fundamental reforms to their sectors. The Minister for Education proposed several changes, among them lengthening the school year, and the Minister for Health has proposed that only tax payers should have access to some state-financed health care services. The protesters were opposed to the hasty proposals and the financial stress created by an enduring austerity regime.

Background

On 17 September 2011 extraordinary parliamentary elections were held in Latvia, and on 25 October the new government began work. The health and education ministers in the new government immediately announced significant reforms in their areas, provoking bewilderment and protests from the trade unions.

Education proposal

The Minister for Education Roberts Ķīlis proposed lengthening the school year, starting with the 2012/2013 academic year, to reduce the number of classroom hours for some students.

Some teenage students currently have up to 36 hours of classes per week, as well as homework.

Lengthening the school year would make it possible to reduce the number of hours per day and the amount of homework. Instructional material could be covered more slowly and thoroughly, and the summer vacation when children might be unsupervised would be shortened.

The changes would mean the academic year runs from August to the end of June, instead of September to the end of May. This is just one of 60 proposed reforms that are included in the new government’s action plan.

Parents, the Latvian Education and Science Employees Trade Union (LIZDA) and other NGOs do not support the proposed reforms, but said they were willing to discuss them.

However Minister Ķīlis recently rescinded his proposal.

Health proposal

The Minister for Health Ingrīda Circene proposed that state-financed health care should only be available to tax payers and special groups of people who are exempt from paying taxes, such as the registered unemployed, students, people over 18 who are still at secondary school, women with children, pregnant women and disabled persons.

This principle would take effect in mid 2012.

Those people who are aged 18 to 62 and who do not pay taxes for any of the legitimate reasons listed above, would not be entitled to access state-financed health care and would only be allowed to receive emergency care. They would have to cover the cost of other services themselves, such as consultations with a family doctor or specialist, medical tests and surgical procedures and operations.

The main goal of this proposal is to crack down on the shadow economy and ensure the state receives more money from tax payments, which can be used to finance health care.

This proposal is still under discussion.

Health care trade union response

The Minister’s announcement triggered alarm about the situation in the country’s healthcare system. The Trade Union of Health and Social Care Employees of Latvia (LVSADA), the Latvian Umbrella Body for Disability organisations (SUSTENTO), the Nursing and Health Care Personnel Trade Union (LĀADA), and the Association of Hospitals of Latvia (LSB), published an open letter about the situation.

In it they request the government to allocate at least 4% of GDP to health care in 2012, and at least 4.5% in 2014, up from 3.3% in 2009, and 3.2% in 2010. Figures for 2011 are not yet available, but were 3.1%, 2.8% and 2.6% in first three quarters respectively.

In November 2011, LVSADA announced that medical personnel were preparing a protest action that would be cancelled only if the government proved that in the 2012 budget, financing for health care would not be cut. In her reply, the Minister said it was not possible to increase financing for health care to 4% of GDP and that the only long-term solution to the financing problem is to link planned health care to the payment of taxes.

LVSADA held its demonstration on 8 December 2011, supported by the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia (LBAS).

Speaker of the Saeima (parliament), Solvita Āboltiņa from the Unity party (Vienotība), listened to the health care workers’ concerns. Although increased financing for the health care sector was not promised, LVSADA leader Valdis Keris acknowledged that the protest had paved the way for ‘constructive dialogue’ with politicians.

Commentary

Neither of the new ministers has been able to explain how these new proposals will help to develop their sectors.

Implementing the health care proposal would make medical services less accessible, while the education workers trade union feared that implementing the proposal for education could result in lower salaries for teachers.

Nevertheless, the main reason for both protest actions was the reduced allocation from the state budget to the education and health care sectors. Trade unions believe that further cuts in education and health care financing is not acceptable.

Both ministers are actively discussing their proposals with interested parties and relevant stakeholders. The Minister for Education has held several meetings with teachers and parents’ representatives as well as separate meetings with trade unions, while the Minister for Health has met with hospitals workers and trade unions.

Raita Karnite, EPC, Ltd.

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