Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s proposed health care reform, aimed at reducing the time patients must wait for treatment, met an immediate chorus of critics after she rolled it out on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Skeptics didn’t appreciate the unusual timing or the conservative government’s proposed use of private health care providers, fearing it will “commercialize” Norway’s national health system.
Norwegians pay some relatively high taxes, but when they get sick, the national health care system covers virtually all the costs of hospitalization and follow-up care. One ongoing problem, however, has been the potential for landing on a waiting list for treatment. Emergency care is immediate, but patients needing non-emergency treatment can end up waiting for months until they’re called in, depending on the nature of their needs.
Solberg’s government thus continued delivering a rush of new proposals before parliament adjourns for its summer recess, by presenting its health care reform package that can leave patients choosing private options for care with the state picking up the bill. The idea is to utilize capacity at the private clinics and hospitals that have popped up in recent years, serving Norwegians willing to pay for medical care themselves, for example, to avoid waiting months for care in the public health system.
Solberg and her health minister, Bent Høie, both from the Conservative Party, called their proposal “our greatest health care reform.” It would remove limits on how much treatment publicly financed hospitals can offer, initially put in place to control costs. In its first phase, patients needing drug rehabilitation programs and psychiatric care can opt for private treatment at state expense. Other private options would gradually be phased in, as the state purchases more health care services from the private sector, when the public sector’s waiting list is too long.
“The amount of time patients must wait for treatment will be shortened,” Solberg told reporters at her unusual Sunday press conference. Høie agreed, saying that “far too many people wait unnecessarily long for necessary health services, when we know there’s available capacity both in the public and private sectors.”
Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the Progress Party claimed the reform provided “an important strengthening of patients’ rights in the health care system.”
Opposition politicians in the Labour, Center and Socialist Left parties rejected the reform proposal immediately. Kjersti Toppe of the Center Party called it “the biggest privatization of Norwegian health care in modern times.” She said the government could quickly lose control of health care costs, while Audun Lysbakken of the Socialist Left called the proposal “forced privatization. It’s not the patients that will get more choices but commercial enterprises. This government cares more about them, who want to earn money on health care, than about the patients.”
The Solberg government’s two support parties in Parliament were also skeptical, with the Liberals fearing it would create more bureaucracy and the Christian Democrats warning it could provide private health care providers with a suction pipe right into the state treasury.
Jensen in turn rejected the concerns, downplaying any risk of galloping health care costs. “Not treating patients, by forcing them to wait, can also be costly,” Jensen said. The proposal will now go to hearing with a deadline for comments of September 15.