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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 January, 2004, 22:21 GMT
Strike over French health reforms
Doctors and hospital workers marching toward the Health Ministry in Paris
Doctors and hospital workers say they face acute staff shortages
Thousands of French health workers have held a one-day strike to protest against government plans to cut costs in the country's health system.

Doctors and hospital staff on Thursday marched on the Health Ministry in Paris, accusing the government of planning to privatise medical care.

France's health service is generous, treating patients without delay.

But the government insists reforms are necessary to reduce an annual health budget deficit of 10 billion euros.

Unions had called for a day of stoppages and demonstrations, to demand more staff and better working conditions.

However turn-out was low. About 10% of public-sector heath workers and doctors stayed away, according to government figures.

Fixing it will be very, very difficult, because people are used to this incredible generosity
Pierre Lellouche, MP
These figures were disputed by organisers.

"When a ministry is unable to count the dead from a heat wave over the summer, it's hard to see how it can count strikers on a single day," said Patrick Pelloux, President of the Association of Emergency Hospital Doctors.

Cost control

The inadequacies of the French health system were exposed last year, when a heat wave killed around 15,000 mostly elderly people.

There was also a bed shortage in hospitals in December, when a nationwide flu and bronchitis epidemic broke out.

Number of doctors per 1,000 people
Italy - 4.1
France - 3.3
Germany - 3.3
UK - 2.0
Japan - 1.9
Source: British Medical Association. Figures for 2000
Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei has already put forward a plan known as "Hospital 2007" proposing management reforms and a new emphasis on cost assessment.

On Friday a committee of experts is to suggest ways of reforming the social security system - of which the health system is the most expensive part.

Mr Pelloux said the proposed cuts were "the start of privatisation".

The government denies this and says reforms are necessary even if they hurt.

"Fixing it will be very, very difficult," said Pierre Lellouche, of the governing UMP party.

"People are used to this incredible generosity. If you need an operation, you need a free operation immediately."

Ageing population

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt says that the French government has in the past been cautious about tackling health reform.

But an ageing population is now putting more pressure on the health service than ever - while providing less tax revenue to fund it.

Critics say the health service is suffering from poor accounting and endemic over-prescription.

One fifth of the country's health spending goes on pharmaceuticals.

Government economists warned last year that the health system's annual deficit could rise to 29 billion euros by 2010 without a major overhaul.

It is expected that the proposals suggested by experts on Friday will include an unpopular increase in income-related taxes.

The BBC's Allan Little
"Their public services are excellent but the French will eventually have to find a way to pay for them"

French strikes lose bite
12 Jun 03  |  Europe
France's ailing health system
30 Jul 02  |  Europe
Country profile: France
20 Jan 04  |  Country profiles

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