By AVA TURNQUEST
and FARRAH JOHNSON
Tribune Staff Reporters
FED up with a lack of a resolution over longstanding disputes, more than 400 junior doctors went on strike yesterday forcing the nation’s public healthcare system into “emergency mode”.
Of that number, approximately 200 physicians were on call throughout the country’s network and were resolved to only work on emergency cases, according to Bahamas Doctors Union President Dr Melisande Bassett.
The BDU was called to the Office of Prime Minister Dr Hubert Minnis for an impromptu meeting around 3.30pm in the hope of deescalating tensions and bring both sides back to the table, The Tribune was told.
Labour Minister Dion Foulkes said the meeting was very productive, with a clear path outlined for negotiations chaired by Labour Director John Pinder to resume at the Department of Labour next week.
However, up to press time it was not clear whether the union would end its strike.
The strike has drawn support from several unions, all of which have expressed dissatisfaction over the government’s handling of labour disputes in recent months.
Bahamas Nurses Union President Amancha Williams threatened related health service unions would coordinate efforts to “shut PMH down” in support of doctors if needs were not met.
According to BDU, no essential services were affected as senior doctors, under the Consultant Physicians Staff Association, were still on duty.
“We have emergency staff in house,” Dr Bassett said, “most of the doctors are on the compound. We are here for emergency purposes. The main thing that persons felt was clinics are closed and only emergency surgeries were done. We are still ensuring patient care is not interrupted.”
Dr Bassett explained the decision to make good on a strike certificate obtained last year was prompted by repeated failures on the part of the Public Hospitals Authority to negotiate in good faith over holiday pay; and the issuance of one-year contracts despite assurances from Health Minister Dr Duane Sands that the practice would stop.
She insisted the new PHA board was exclusively concerned with its bottom line and insensitive to the challenges faced by junior doctors.
“Another thing I want to point out is an erroneous figure the PHA has been putting out there,” Dr Bassett said, “as to what we actually take home. We do not take home $80,000, most doctors take home less than $45,000 (a year). We have our base salary and on call allowance but (PHA) makes provisions in their budget for things that we never see. The education loan, they refuse to pay that when we request that. The uniform allowance is a one-time fee so we certainly don’t take that home.
“The pay for meals, we do not see that. We do not get that. And many of us are even not afforded the meals that are listed within our industrial agreement. The medical insurance, not all of us are a part of the medical insurance because it offers very little benefits. I think it’s at a D-level so many have their own private insurance. I don’t think half of the union has signed up for it, if 100 doctors.
“They need to be honest with what they put forward,” Dr Bassett said.
She insisted their grievances were not only about money as she laid out demands for the resolution of several vexing issues before the strike is called off. The union wants intern housing to be reinstated, and greater attention given to the needs of doctors in Grand Bahama who don’t have a proper on-call suite and are allegedly being denied vacation time and casual leave.
“We’ve filed a trade dispute since 2014, we’ve had meetings back and forth, they’ve vacillated, they say they’ll pay, they start to pay, then they’ll stop,” Dr Bassett told reporters outside Princess Margaret Hospital yesterday.
“We’ve had demonstrations, we’ve threatened strike action in the past, we’ve come back to the table. Most recently they told us they would pay us over five instalments and based on availability. To us that is unacceptable and along with the other issues that we face we need resolution.
“The minister assured us that the one-year contracts would stop. However, PHA has just recently given us notification that they will continue to give one, two and three-year contracts when we’ve never had that in the past.
“We expressed to them the difficulties doctors have in getting a simple car loan, a simple mortgage, that has fallen on deaf ears,” she said.
“We think that is a slight and a slap in the face. The vacillation and the fact that we can’t get a definitive answer and just decent dialogue is just part of our issue and things we need to resolve.”
Yesterday Dr Sands told The Tribune he did not think the union needed to resort to a strike to achieve a resolution.
He said he did not want to inflame the matter further, but noted the doctors appeared unwilling to document their working hours.
“I think this is a very unfortunate matter,” Dr Sands said. “We have spent so much time dealing with this and reached a reasonable path to resolution, and it results in patients being denied care. We are now in emergency mode.
“We met with (the) union, we made it very clear the ministry does not support, as a policy, one-year contract for doctors. The challenge of this vacation time is that we need to be able to determine who to pay, and for what, because the doctors are unwilling to have any means of documenting that they are working. We are going to meet as an executive administrative team to try and get this matter because the public is suffering.”
On the matter of documenting work hours, Dr Bassett said the union agreed to a reimbursement form under the former PHA board. She said the new board does not recognise the form and is trying to implement “swiping in to be paid”.
“The issue with swiping in, as we’ve pointed out before, we have satellite clinics that don’t have the means to account for time that doctors do attend work,” she said. “We leave from the hospital, go to these satellite clinics, there isn’t any means of swiping in there.”
The strike follows a mass exercise last year November, when nearly 600 frustrated senior and junior doctors withdrew services over outstanding physician reimbursements and improvements to base salaries.
Representatives from the Bahamas Public Service Union, BNU, the Union of Tertiary Educators of the Bahamas, Union of Public Officers and the Trade Union Congress stood in solidarity with the BDU at the hospital yesterday.
Obie Ferguson, TUC president, stressed public holiday pay is a statutory right that was non-negotiable, and called on the government to resolve the matter immediately.
On behalf of BNU, Ms Williams said: “We will take a stand, if the nurses have to come off the job, we will do that to take a stand with our congress. We are not playing no jokes. We want the money to be paid to the doctors so the Bahamian people can get quality service as needed today.
“So those that are in power, please we don’t want you just to acknowledge, we don’t want you just to call, we want you to make the change today and we will wait patiently and we will stick together like sardines in a can. That’s how we moving.
“The doctor can’t work without the nurse, the nurse can’t work without the auxiliary, the auxiliary can’t work without the gardener…we all will shut PMH down and they have concerns all around here. Our workers here are going through a very stressful time.
“Air-conditions off, the roof leaking, right now presently you have bins all over the place which is a hazard, mould... look at the workers outside they ready to go,” Ms Williams said.