Health minister rejects ‘crisis’ claims

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Norway’s largest hospitals in the nation’s capital aren’t the only ones facing severe budget problems that many are calling a “crisis.” Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen, though, is resisting pressure to address alleged funding shortfalls after more hospital administrators claim they can’t meet budget demands.

Health Minister Anne-Grete Strøm-Erichsen has been under pressure over the state's merger-oriented hospital reform, like here when she was grilled by NRK last winter. PHOTO: Views and News/NRK

Strøm-Erichsen won’t go along with the “crisis” claims and called on opposition politicians in Parliament to “calm themselves down.” She admitted the hospitals face major challenges, but has said it won’t help to simply allocate more state funding to offset the budget shortfalls.

Strøm-Erichsen had been trying to stay out of the drama that climaxed this week when the top administrator at Oslo University Hospital, Siri Hatlen, resigned. Hatlen, well-regarded by hospital staff and managers alike, couldn’t go along with cost cuts demanded by the state agency that officially owns the giant hospital, formed through an expensive an ongoing merger of what initially were four separate hospitals: Ullevål, Radium- and Rikshospitalet and Aker.

Hatlen’s dramatic departure is now being followed by similar conflicts between administrators for four hospitals west of Oslo that serve around 450,000 residents from Bærum to southern Buskerud County. They make up what’s now called Vestre Viken Helseforetak (HF), another state-orchestrated merger of hospitals in Ringerike, Kongsberg, Buskerud (now called Drammen Hospital) and Bærum.

More cuts demanded
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported Wednesday that Vestre Viken, owned by the same state agency (Helse Sør-Øst) as Oslo University Hospital, is also being asked by Helse Sør-Øst to produce a budget with a surplus of NOK 71 million. Instead, administrators reportedly are looking at a loss of NOK 190 million unless more major cuts are made.

Helge Bryne, leader of Vestre Viken’s board and in a similar position as Hatlen was, told Dagsavisen it was “not realistic” to meet Helse Sør-Øst’s demands. “The challenges of carrying out the merger among Vestre Viken’s hospitals were underestimated,” Bryne said. “There’s a lot that needs to be coordinated and it’s costing more than predicted at the outset.”

That’s the same problem Hatlen faced in trying to implement the merger of the Oslo hospitals, and both organizations now are effectively being asked to cut costs by hundreds of millions of kroner: NOK 500 million in Oslo and an estimated NOK 250 million at Vestre Viken.

That’s left hospital workers supporting their administrators like Bryne and Hatlen, before she quit, and furious at those running Helse Sør-Øst. Many are now calling for the resignation of Helse Sør-Øst’s chief, Bente Mikkelsen, who was grilled on national TV Tuesday night. She insisted to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the expensive and controversial hospital mergers must still be carried out despite the challenges the present, because they will eventually result in a better, more streamlined health care delivery system.

Lack of confidence
Strøm-Erichsen, keen to let Mikkelsen and the hospital bureaucrats work out the merger details themselves, agrees that the merger reform program launched by her Labour Party ministerial predecessor a few years ago can and should be carried out. She declined detailed comment on Hatlen’s resignation, saying she was relying on the Helse Sør-Øst board to deal with the situation, but Strøm-Erichsen faced tough questioning in Parliament on Wednesday.

She stressed that patients still “have all reason to feel secure” and that she’d be willing to meet employees at Oslo University Hospital, where staff representatives say they’ve lost confidence in Mikkelsen. “We can’t expect that everything goes smoothly all the time,” Strøm-Erichsen told newspaper Aftenposten. “We can’t give up at the first obstacle.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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