Norway: Protests against health care cuts

‘Red-Green’ government feels working people’s anger

It has been proven time after time throughout Europe in the past decade that a ‘Labour’ or ‘socialist’ government does not defend welfare reforms. But what about their main argument for cuts – the shortage of funds? Is there any truth to that argument? Norway provides a good answer.

In 2005, Norway saw a four-party ‘Red-Green Coalition’ government come to office, headed by Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg from Arbeiderpartiet (AP, the Labour party). Thanks to the vast oil assets in the North Sea and rising world market prices, Norwegian state finances are in a good state and could be a source of jealousy to any finance minister. In 2006, net income from oil production is estimated at NOK 457 billion (€ 57 billion), in a country with a population of less than 5 million. However, both the former right-wing government and the present red-green coalition are committed to spending as little as they consider possible on everyday expenditure. Instead, the bulk of the oil income is shuffled aside into the State Pension Fund / Overseas, where it is used for investments in foreign stocks and other financial assets. The oil-related surplus of the State Pension Fund in 2007 is calculated to reach NOK 387 billion. Only NOK 71 billion of oil money will be used in the actual state budget, which means a tiny increase of NOK 6 billion in oil money spent, compared to 2006.

The consequence of this collect-and-save policy is welfare cuts. In 2002, the Norwegian state assumed responsibility of all acute hospitals from the councils, to stem escalating costs. For the fiscal year of 2007, a cost increase of NOK 1.65 billion is budgeted, including rising pension costs of NOK 1 bill. At the same time, the five regional state-owned health enterprises are prohibited from planning any budget deficits, which they in many cases carry with them since 2002. This is due to costs for assuming ownership of hospital buildings in need of maintenance, ongoing refurbishments etc. The direct consequence is that 4 out of 5 regional health enterprises are forced to carry through cuts in the budgets, and are reducing health services.

The biggest budget deficit is found in Helse Nord, which is responsible for health care in the three northernmost regions (roughly the upper half of Norway). In this area, funding is NOK 500 million short of the calculated costs for 2007. The demand for down-sizing of expenditures already has far-reaching consequences. The region’s biggest hospital, the University Hospital NordNorge, in Tromso, was faced with a demand to shave off costs amounting to NOK 150 million the coming year. The directorate (executive committee) of Helse Nord proposed the introduction of a 4-day working week for all elective surgery and non-acute treatment, along with cutting 145 jobs. This caused widespread protests. All the unions at the hospital passed statements against the proposal. The medical students at the local university protested, pointing out that they risked failing exams as a 4-day week would mean little clinical experience. They were backed up by the university ruling board, which threatened to close all medical education at the university should the proposal be carried through. This, in turn, would threaten the future of the university, and undermine the entire city of Tromso. On 4 December, a demonstration of hospital employees during the meeting of the hospital executive board put so much pressure on executive board members; they refused to make any decision on cuts. Instead they referred back to the directorate of Helse Nord, demanding more funds. And the directorate, in turn, at their meeting on 13 December, realized they would risk revolt from below if tried to decide on cuts, so they decided to refuse to carry out government instructions, while requesting increased funding.

Local politicians forced to call strike

But protest moods are not confined to Tromso. Sor-Varanger Council (in Kirkenes town, at the north-eastern tip of Norway), the council executive board took the rather unusual unanimous decision of calling for an all-out local general strike in protest against the NOK 23 million cuts demand for the local hospital. The proposal in Kirkenes is to cut 16 jobs, by closing down a rehabilitation ward. The local politicians were supported by local business, as well as union representatives, when encouraging those in professional occupations to stop work for one hour, on 19 December, in defence of local health care services. As it turned out, more than 1,500 attended the protest meeting in the central square of Kirkenes town, on the Tuesday before Christmas – an impressive number for a town with less than 10,000 inhabitants. The local politicians also appealed to the surrounding councils to join them in further protests, as they will be equally affected by the hospital cuts.

The national ‘red-green’ government came under attack from all corners of the country due to the proposed health care cuts. Calls were made for the health care minister, Sylvia Brustad, to leave office. However, the government has yet not backed off, although they tried to divert attention from the health care issue in the north, by launching a “northern development package”, in early December. This package included support to different regional businesses.

For the health care cuts protests to develop, the scattered protests need to be coordinated, to avoid one region from being pitted against another. This needs a clear sighted anti-cuts leadership, which has yet failed to materialise.

Norway starkly shows how the established parties, including the so-called social democratic parties, no longer even pretend to defend the living standards of working people. Union activists and working class people need a fighting leadership to give a militant response, stop the health cuts and other attacks on their conditions and on the welfare state.

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January 2007