From Iceland — So What's This Crumbling Healthcare System I Keep Hearing About?

So What’s This Crumbling Healthcare System I Keep Hearing About?

Published August 1, 2015

So What’s This Crumbling Healthcare System I Keep Hearing About?
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In recent years, a number of recurring news stories have appeared on the front pages of Icelandic newspapers, greeting the nation in the morning like a bag full of poo on fire inside a box of corn flakes. Perhaps the most depressing ones have been about the poor state of the public healthcare system.

Flaming turds in my cereal is why I keep an extinguisher in my kitchen.

The previous left-wing government’s plan to fix the healthcare system was to build a new hospital. Right from the start this idea was criticised by members of the current right-wing government, who were then in the opposition. They asked rhetorically whether what the healthcare system needed was more concrete.

Concrete will hold a broken leg in place, but there are better methods.

Once the current right-wing government got into power, they put a halt to the plans to build a new hospital. Their new plan, it seems, was to do nothing and see what happens. What they saw happen was a series of strikes by various healthcare professions, demanding both higher wages and better working conditions.

What, the satisfaction of saving lives isn’t payment enough?

The latest group of healthcare workers to strike were nurses. They wanted a 25- 30% pay increase, which is comparable to what doctors received at the beginning of the year. The government felt the best it could offer was a 20% pay increase. The Icelandic Nurses’ Association put that offer up for a vote and its members rejected it with nearly nine out of every ten votes. The government then passed a law that compelled nurses and the also-striking Association of Academics to return to work.

Well, if the government passed a law, then everything must be better now.

The flaming turd has set fire to the kitchen curtains. Nearly one out of five nurses working for the National University Hospital has sent a resignation letter, including six out of ten emergency care nurses. This hospital has two thirds of all hospital beds in Iceland. If that many nurses quit, the hospital will not be able to function like it does today, and it will have to close its emergency department.

I feel bad for the government like I would for a man trying to throw a flaming turd out a window and missing.

The government knew about the flaming turd years in advance. In 2009, Frosti Sigurjónsson, now a Member of Parliament for the ruling Progressive Party, wrote an article in which he predicted that people who work in healthcare would take jobs overseas unless salaries were increased. His proposal was that the money not spent on building a new hospital would go to higher pay so that healthcare workers would not leave the country.

With years to prepare, did the government have any backup plans for a flaming turd-started kitchen fire?

Minister of Health Kristján Þór Júlíusson has reacted with the grace of a man who has to deal with a bag full of poo on fire before having his morning cup of coffee. In an interview he blamed the media for making Icelanders fearful of the state of the healthcare system. He said he had “had enough of this discussion” and was “agitated” about it. Though he agreed that if the emergency department closed, society would break down.

Let’s be calm, it’s only the breakdown of society.

Some members of the Independence Party, the other ruling party, have proposed that the solution is to allow privatization in the healthcare system. Since privatization is widely thought to have paved the way for the financial collapse in 2008, this is not popular. However, some nurses have stated that they are planning to start a company that would contract out nursing services to hospitals, getting higher pay for their work.

No wonder the Minister of Health is reacting like a man holding a flaming bag of turds.

The Icelandic Nurses Association and the Association of Academics have sued the government to overturn the law that ended their strikes. The case will go before the Icelandic courts this month. And for the foreseeable future, news about the poor state of the healthcare system will continue to appear, spoiling many a breakfast.

Has there been any cheerful news? I need something lighter with my morning coffee.

The funniest news lately was a about the bicyclist who disposed of his used toilet paper by setting it on fire. The resulting brushfire was extinguished by the local fire department. A group of nearby tourists thought that a volcano was erupting and rushed to the scene, only to find a bunch of flaming turds. Which, at the very least, is an authentic Icelandic experience.

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