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General News of Friday, 9 June 2006

Source: Sasman

Public hospitals grind to a halt ...

... as other workers protest ?unfair? pay rises for doctors

Public hospitals across the country remain in the throes of crippling strike action, with nurses, paramedics and pharmacists amongst those who are also now refusing to go to work ? in protest against the long-called-for release of a new payment structure for the health sector Wednesday which they say favours doctors.

Junior doctors have been striking at Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra since May 26, yet the announcement of the new payment system for which they have called seems only to have stirred up resentment in other quarters.

Wednesday, the Health Workers? Group of Ghana, an umbrella group which comprises various medical associations and represents the interests of nurses, pharmacists, medical assistants, health administrators and other non-doctor health workers, denounced the new salary system as biased, declaring all-out strike until a more equitable deal is presented.

Meanwhile, far from placated, doctors too continue to withhold their services. All public medical staff were this week offered two months? salary arrears of the five owed them, following the scrapping of the Additional Duty Hours? Allowance at the end of 2005 and a delay in its promised replacement. Under the compromise package, public health workers would also receive full salary payment under the new pay structure for the month of June, and the option of one months? salary advance from hospital administration or commercial banks. Junior doctors at Korle-Bu have rejected the offer; despite the announcement of significant pay increases they are holding out for a more immediate repayment package ? meaning doctors and nurses alike are now refusing to go to work. The new salary structure for doctors significantly raises the salary of housemen from ?4.7m to ?9m, with the highest paid specialist receiving close to ?40m.

Meanwhile, the complex new scales have restructured the other health professionals into 20 steps and 9 different bands (from Band 1 to Band 8b). It is this that was rejected by the clinicals and other allied health professionals as ?unfair?, relative to what the doctors were getting.

Information reaching The Statesman last night was that the Ministry of Health was able to bridge a compromise which will now see the others receiving a lot more than originally agreed under the new system, relative to what the doctors are to receive.

?The other news is that the latest arrangement still does not breach the ?2.4 trillion ceiling we have set in the budget,? Finance Minister Kwadwo Baah-Wiredu told this paper. Details of the renegotiated scale will be in Monday?s edition of the Daily Statesman.

That pay structure takes care of ancillary staff, support staff, senior staff and clinical staff. The new scale may see the average nurse receiving in excess of ?7.7m.

But this was of little respite to patients. Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, normally a hive of activity and emergency, now lies genuinely empty; whilst the doctors? strike saw other medical carers still working the wards, now there is barely a soul to be seen.

When The Statesman visited the hospital Thursday, the Surgical/Medical Emergency Unit was silent; there were no patients, no doctors or nurses, not even any cleaners. The reception was unmanned and every bed lay vacant.

The Medical Block was also empty of patients, although several nurses were spotted on the ward. The hospital pharmacy ? ?Open 24 hours a day,? according to its notice board ? was not dispensing.

In the main Admissions & Entries area, there was again no one waiting and no one working; The Statesman was informed at the desk that no admissions were being taken.

Elsewhere on the hospital site, however, several hundred workers had gathered for a rally.

?The sub-committee [set up to investigate the issue of medical pay] has not delivered!? Mary Ann Sacketfio, the Chairman of the Ghana Registered Nurses? Association for Greater Accra, boldly declared. ?They are bowing to the doctors because they have not been paid. We, also, have not been paid ? but have remained at our posts. Now, we discontinue our services until further notice.?

She railed against the disproportionate salary increments for medical doctors, and the perceived priority being given to doctors in the repayment of arrears ? a perception shared by others at the rally who revealed ?information? that the hospital was ignoring all repayment besides that of doctors.

However, Mustapha Salifu, the Public Relations Officer for the hospital, later told this reporter that the Korle-Bu administration has nothing to do with the repayment strategy.

?Until Quashigah has resigned, we will all remain in the house,? was the radical declaration of Raymond Tetteh, Chairman of the Government and Hospital Pharmacists Association ? a statement which met with rapturous applause.

However, The Statesman can disclose that the Health Minister has been one unyielding advocate on the side of the nurses and other workers in bridging the relativity gap. Except, of course, tripling the salaries of 2,000 doctors is not the same as doubling the salaries of about 39,000 workers.

They want ?equity and fairness? in the new payment structure, he said; which means sufficient recognition for all staff.

?Many senior nurses hold degrees,? Alice Asare Allotey, national president of the GRNA, said in an interview after the meeting, criticising the way in which medical doctors have been given precedence over all other staff.

Ms Allotey explained that the particular contention of nurses and of the HWG is the way in which the new salary structure fails to distinguish between different levels of experience and qualification. The new ?stages? introduced are insufficient, she said, with too many workers lumped together in the same category and on the same salary. A house officer and a senior nurse will now be on the same salary, she said; advocating a system more like the UK?s Agenda for Change which has seen a radical overhaul of nurses? pay there.

The Statesman reported Wednesday that the new salary structure will see the average salary of Ghanaian nurses increase. Yet these increases ?will not be significant? and ?will not be fair,? Ms Allotey told this reporter. ?Nobody will be worse off,? she said of her profession, conceding that some nurses would benefit from the new salaries. ?But this is all about teamwork,? ? and nurses and other medical professionals feel undervalued compared to their doctor colleagues who will enjoy far larger pay rises.

Meanwhile, some pharmacists and pharmaceutical technicians will actually see a drop in their salaries due to the re-configuring of these ?stages?, they say ? in direct breach of the National Labour Commission?s promise that no salaries would decrease under the new structure, and that the gap between doctors? and other workers? earnings would be filled.

Theophilus Mensah leads the pharmaceutical technicians? division within the Health Service Workers Union. After reading The Statesman report of Wednesday June 7 which cited pay increases, he felt compelled to voice his own experiences on Peace FM that morning: a salary cut of over ?1 million on what he had been receiving before the controversial Additional Duty Hours? Allowance was scrapped at the end of 2005.

Other medical staff expressed concern to this reporter that regardless of what is promised by the new payment package, there is little guarantee based on past records of its actually be fulfilled.

Joseph Ali Dantani, 25, is a New Entry nurse. After three years of training, he qualified 18 months ago ? yet continues to take home just his ?350,000 student allowance despite his eligibility for a full salary. ?The juniors are coming to join us, yet we seniors are still not getting paid,? he said.

Management at Korle-Bu have consistently called on the doctors, and now calls upon the rest of the staff, to end their strike. Speaking in an interview with The Statesman Thursday, the Public Relations Officer reiterated the same message.

?The most important person to all of us is the patient ? and we don?t want the patient to suffer,? he said. ?We are doing everything we can to contain the situation, and whilst we sympathise with the doctors and now the other professionals, we urge them all to come back to work.?