The Hungarian medical community is dead set against the reforms, presumably for financial and political rather than medical reasons. There seems to be a cozy arrangement between the Hungarian Medical Association, membership in which was until very recently compulsory for every practicing doctor, and the Fidesz. The Hungarian doctors’ leaning to the right is not a new phenomenon: already in the early 1920s, after the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the medical students were the most enthusiastic supporters of the "counterrevolution." (The term is not the invention of historians, the radicals called themselves counterrevolutionaries.) In fact, the idea of the infamous numerus clausus, a law fixing the number of Jewish students in institutions of higher learning to the percentage of Jews in the population as a whole (around 5%), came from the students and faculty of the Medical University of Budapest. It seems that doctors haven’t changed their political stripes, though with time their causes have changed.
During the Orbán government’s tenure (1998-2002) the Medical Association was a pliable tool of the government. Although there were idle talks about the necessity of raising the salaries of doctors 400% percent, they didn’t receive a penny. Yet there was no opposition from either the doctors or the association. Of course, Orbán is a clever fellow: he simply asked the head of the Medical Association to become minister of health. I was stunned when I heard that ruse. It was like letting the fox guard the henhouse. The ministry of health to my mind is supposed to represent the interest of the population while the the function of the Medical Association, as a professional organization, is to look after the interests of its members. About 40,000 doctors as opposed to 10 million citizens. I assumed then and assume now that the only reason for Árpád Gógl’s appointment was to make sure that the doctors would not turn against the government when the Fidesz reneged on its promises to the medical community. Although Gógl served for only a little over two years, his successor, István Mikola, was obviously on good terms with the association, and the good relations between the Medical Association and the government continued.
But starting in 2003 the relationship between the socialist-liberal government and the association soured in spite of the fact that doctors’ and nurses’ salaries were raised by 50%. Then came the appointment of István Éger as president of the association a few years ago. By that time the government had managed to change the law governing membership in professional associations so that it was no longer compulsory. With this law the government obviously hoped to weaken a recalitrant medical association. But although today the association has fewer members, it has still managed to keep the majority of the doctors within its ranks.
The president of the association, Dr. Éger, assiduously campaigned against the reforms. But now that the bill has passed in parliament and he has been democratically defeated, he starts to sound like a guerrilla warrior. This morning he held a press conference where he didn’t mince words. His most memorable line was: "We will trip them up everywhere we can." (In the original: "Ott fogunk betartani, ahol tudunk.") The word "betartani" is slang with a sinister connotation, closer to "we will sabotage them anywhere we can." He continued that "they [doctors] will not give a helping hand" even to make a better law by suggesting details for its practical introduction. He didn’t exclude the possibility of strikes although the association cannot organize strikes because it is not a trade union. In addition, he made veiled references to dire consequences for parliamentary members who voted for the bill. Although he wasn’t explicitly threatening these parliamentary members, some who listened to his words interpreted them this way. Some ordinary citizens asked whether doctors will refuse to treat those who voted for the bill or those who support the government’s reforms.
It would be wise for Éger to be more careful with his words. Surely, after the end of the press conference he must have realized that this "trip up," "sabotage, "betartani" word was not the best. On the home page of the Hungarian Medical Assocation the text was changed: the word "betartani" (to sabotage) was changed to "ellenállni" (to oppose). Needless to say, the right-wing Magyar Nemzet used the revised, let’s face it, falsified version. So did the InfoRádió, a radio also favoring the Fidesz. But by then it was too late. The original had appeared in a gazillion venues. What will the average citizen think? Will they realize that the reforms are intended to benefit them, not at the expense of forward-thinking doctors but at the expense of those who expect to be compensated by the state for providing sub-par service and by patients (in the form of gratuities) for providing adequate service? We can only hope so.