HEALTH Minister Stavros Malas yesterday said he was close to reaching a new model for state doctors’ overtime, after fresh reports of milking the system emerged.

The reports referred to an investigation by the ministry into the overtime hours worked in public hospitals. They claimed, among others, the overtime worked in the accidents and emergency units was disproportionately high, that the number of surgeries performed during overtime hours was high even as waiting lists continued to rise, and that the intensive care units in the smaller hospitals demanded more in overtime than those of bigger ones. 

“We have been considering this matter for a while now, reaching an initial agreement to conclude discussions on a model which is mutually acceptable and effective,” Malas said yesterday. 

He added that a meeting would soon be held with government doctors’ union PASYKI and public servants’ umbrella union PASYDY to conclude on a final model.

The minister contradicted reports that the investigation showed that 30 per cent of the overtime paid could have been saved with small alterations to the system.

“I am not sure if we have concluded on the percentage of any reduction as reports are claiming,” said Malas. 

Phileleftheros newspaper said doctors at Paphos’ hospital were paid the same in overtime as those of Limassol hospital, which is vastly bigger. But the minister said it was because the number of employees at Limassol was almost double that of Paphos.

“There are also certain objective approaches that we need to be careful about,” said Malas. “What happens in Paphos hospital is that there are fewer doctors, and the fewer doctors are called to cover the needs of the hospital in the same amount of time. So the per capita overtime recorded in Paphos hospital, which has fewer doctors, will obviously be higher. We have 41 doctors in Paphos and 80 in Limassol. The per capita average cost (of overtime) for Limassol was €18,000 in 2010 and €15,000 in 2011, while in Paphos it was €25,000 and €23,000 respectively.”

But he did admit his ministry had spotted certain instances where “the recordings of overtime could have been lower”.

However, how much lower it could have been will become evident with the course of time, said Malas.

“We haven’t concluded that exploitation to the extent of 30 per cent is taking place,” he said. “This is something I can’t confirm and I don’t know where the paper got this study, because all I have in front of me is a simple comparative recording of the overtime hours worked in all the hospitals. If we conclude on a reduction and this reduction will be 30 per cent, this will emerge later.”

Asked if he was denying there was a problem with doctors getting paid for excessive and unnecessary overtime hours, the minister said, “We need to be objective and not populist”.

He said overtime needed to be separated into two categories: the doctors who work “on-call” and those who perform surgeries in overtime hours.

Malas said there were certain units where the overtime recorded was a bit over the top. 

He mentioned heart surgeons at the Nicosia General Hospital but he said if the work they did was done in the private sector it would cost five times as much.

“So we need to be realistic when we make comparisons in the overtime,” he said.

He contradicted reports that the most overtime is paid to doctors. “The amounts paid in night-time benefits to nurses (in 2011) were around €18 million; for doctors, who follow the on-call system, it was around €6 million,” said Malas.

The minister urged the public to be patient, as hospitals were under immense pressure.

Regarding recent reports that a doctor at Nicosia’s Makarios Hospital had been scheduling unnecessary Caesareans over the weekends so he could get paid overtime, Malas said the investigation had only just started and the ministry was in the process of examining medical files and questioning the parties involved.

Meanwhile, DISY MP Stella Kyriakidou called on the minister to announce the findings of his investigation into the overtime hours to the public.

“The issue concerning the immediate need to change doctors’ overtime system has not only been noted many times before, but it has also been repeatedly discussed at the House health committee,” said Kyriakidou, adding that it was also noted in the Auditor-general’s annual report every year. 

She said Malas himself had committed to change the current system six months ago.

“Recently reports claimed there were increased numbers of Caesareans due to exploitation of the overtime system,” said Kyriakidou. “The health minister must immediately inform the public on the conclusions of the investigation he himself ordered and announce when the matter will be resolved.”

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