Budget freeze ‘to affect AKH’

Vienna Medical University (MedUni) head Wolfgang Schütz has warned of a negative impact on services provided to residents of the Vienna region and patients at Austria’s largest clinic if the government refuses to increase its subsidies.

The Republic of Austria has supported Vienna’s General Hospital (AKH) with 270 million Euros since 2010. Schütz said today (Weds) another 100 million Euros were needed between 2013 and 2015 to avoid negative effects on the quality of treatment and care.

The hospital – which receives more than 100 million Euros a year from the City of Vienna – stopped assigning new staff to replace retired nurses, carers and surgeons earlier this year. The head of the MedUni, which is part of the AKH, argued public spending was worth less year after year due to inflation and other factors.

Schütz explained the hospital planned to employ 150 to 180 fewer staff from 2013 if the coalition of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP) refused to increase universities’ budgets. The MedUni boss warned of the negative effect of the university subsidisation freeze on the quality of AKH’s services. AKH uses public university funds to pay the salaries of around 3,000 of its 9,000 employees, according to Schütz.

The MedUni director claimed the AKH – which is located in Vienna-Alsergrund – will employ fewer doctors in the future if the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition keeps rejecting calls for higher university budgets. Reports have it that bosses of the hospital also plan to spend less on its administration in the coming years.

The heads of some of the country’s main universities have warned in the past days of a stop to offering some courses if the government failed to make a U-turn on its spending on higher education institutions.

ÖVP Science Minister Karlheinz Töchterle promised to appeal to ÖVP Finance Minister Maria Fekter for more money. However, the minister also announced: “Structural problems cannot be solved only by spending higher amounts.”

Töchterle once more appealed on the Social Democrats to stop blocking a reintroduction of tuition fees which were abolished three years ago.

The AKH features over 2,000 beds and 51 operating theatres. Around 48,000 surgeries were carried out at the clinic in 2009. Lawmakers and high-profile businessmen from all over the world have sought treatment at the renowned institution over the years.

Herwig Wetzlinger, the former commercial manager of the Provincial Clinic of Klagenfurt, was recently named new deputy head of the AKH. The assignment sparked controversy since Wetzlinger was hired although his contract with the clinic in the Carinthian city had not yet expired.

The AKH has mostly been in the news in negative contexts in recent months. Anti-corruption prosecutors are investigating the clinic’s assignment of a cleaning and facility management company amid suspicions the firm was preferred for other reasons but aspects affecting quality and costs. Some AKH decision-makers could face charges for abuse of office and embezzlement.

AKH boss Reinhard Krepler recently confirmed newspaper reports claiming that the clinic became infested with mice. Krepler explained some employees were relocated to other parts of the building after voles were spotted. He added the AKH was closely cooperating with experts of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (VUW) and pest exterminators to get the situation under control.

The AKH is one of Vienna’s 12 public clinics. Only in March, the government coalition of the SPÖ and the Viennese Green Party announced it planned to close and relocate institutions in the coming years. SPÖ Vienna Health Councillor Sonja Wehsely said the coalition aimed to reduce the number to only seven by 2030. She dismissed speculations that the reform could enforce a worsening of the quality of services. Wehsely added the restructure process would not endanger jobs.

Significant changes may lie ahead for the Austrian healthcare sector due to its allegedly bloated bureaucracy and inefficiency. Some economists have warned that the welfare state may be at risk if the government and regional decision-makers fail to agree on how to cut costs and create more flexible and effective services. The acceleration of the ageing of Austrian society has been identified as a threat to the current system which is widely regarded as good but too expensive.

SPÖ Health Minister Alois Stöger will soon continue talks with provincial health councillors over how to reduce provinces’ health sector debts. Asked whether rumours that the country’s nine provinces had clinic spending debts of eight billion Euros, Stöger told Die Presse newspaper today: “I hope they will not be found to be that high.”

A report on the amount of the regions’ debts as far as their investments in clinics are regarded was expected for this summer. Speaking to Die Presse, the federal health minister said he estimated an amount of “more than two billion Euros.”