By KHRISNA RUSSELL
Deputy Chief Reporter
AS he pointed to the use of taxpayer dollars to fund tuition costs of young doctors, Health Minister Dr Duane Sands suggested the Bahamas Doctors Union’s strike vote had gone against the expectations of Bahamians who will inevitably suffer inconvenience from any form of industrial action BDU might stage.
In a move seen by officials as an attempt to force the Public Hospitals Authority to act quickly, Labour director John Pinder confirmed yesterday 99.9 percent of doctors voted in support of a strike, but he questioned if BDU was on the right track. The union is arguing PHA owes them holiday and overtime pay, Mr Pinder said, adding discussions over the issue had been going well.
However, he said the issue is the union lacks the evidence to their claims. He said PHA advanced a proposal to the union despite the lack of proof, but it was rejected. The union, he said, should have then made a counter proposal, but he was unsure if this happened.
When he spoke to the issue outside Cabinet yesterday morning, Dr Sands said he believed the offer put forward by the PHA was “generous”.
“It’s difficult to call doctors a part of the working class and I think this discussion really gets at the heart of what defines a professional,” Dr Sands said, responding to questions.
“Bear in mind, if you look at junior doctors the average salary is about $48,000 a year and total compensation package is about $80,000 a year plus 15 percent gratuity at the end of three years. So it’s hardly true to consider those individuals as typical working class.”
He continued: “On Sunday in church the pastor or priest spoke about the vocations and what it means to put on a white collar and traditionally the white collars would have been physicians, priests, lawyers in exchange for standing and respect of the community.
“There was an expected degree of sacrifice, particularly when you add the fact that the Bahamian people have paid for the education of the overwhelming majority of these young physicians.
“The fact that Bahamian patients are now being asked to possibly endure the inconvenience of a strike it means that we now need to go back and look fundamentally at what it means to be a professional.”
Asked pointedly if he was saying the doctors were ungrateful, Dr Sands said no, but he said Bahamians held certain expectations.
“No, I don’t think there is a need to use pejoratives. The question is what is the expectation of the public and what is the expectation of those persons who benefit from the taxpayers. So while certain workers would expect that every hour that they show up should be compensated and that they should clock in, there are certain classes of professionals that feel that they shouldn’t have to clock in that they could take a casual day (and) that they would be expected to do what they have to do and leave and not be treated as a typical worker. But then on the flip side is you negotiate ‘well I worked this particular day and I work that particular day and I expect to be paid for it.’
“I think one of the reasons why this was never dealt with is because there was a perception that this did not apply. Now that said, the Public Hospitals Authority has made an offer to the Bahamas Doctors Union to compensate for all of the public holidays worked over the last five or six years and the offer I believe is a rather generous offer, but I think what we are watching is a transition of professionalism and whether it makes us better or worse only time will tell.”
He would not say outright whether he agreed with the doctors’ requests.
“You know I thought long and hard about how I should respond to this and clearly the last thing you want to do is stick a hornet’s nest, but I think as we speak about the withdrawal of health care services by any group of professionals the public is looking on and the public is asking what does this mean and I think it’s a valid question.”
This comes about two weeks after senior doctors ended their industrial action after signing an agreement-in-principle that boosts their terms of employment.
Consultant Physicians Staff Association Treasurer Dr John Dillett at the time credited Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis’ intervention as critical in resolving the dispute that ended with an agreement reached.
In the past year, the doctors have fought for an increase to their base salary, health insurance benefits and a pension plan. An emergency operations protocol was in effect at PHA facilities for more than a week while senior doctors took industrial action, causing residents seeking elective procedures to be turned away.
Financial Secretary Marlon Johnson told The Tribune that the agreement satisfies the key concern of the healthcare professionals, which is the “lack of progression from their last salary increase to now.”