I don’t think that it is an exaggeration to say that one of the reasons, perhaps the most important one, for the demise of the Gyurcsány government was its failed attempt at health care reform. The struggle between reformers and those who opposed the changes introduced by Lajos Molnár (SZDSZ), minister of health, in the fall of 2006 was intensified by the fierce opposition to the reforms by the Hungarian Medical Association (Magyar Orvosi Kamara/MOK) led by István Éger.
Fidesz and MOK worked hand in hand to prevent the introduction of reforms. And they were successful. Although the health care bill was passed in December 2007, Éger began to sound like a guerrilla warrior. His most memorable line was uttered on December 18, 2007 when he announced that “we will trip them up everywhere we can.” (In the original: “Ott fogunk betartani, ahol tudunk.”) This slang expression is close to the meaning of the word “sabotage.” And indeed, Éger tried his best to make the Gyurcsány and later the Bajnai government’s life miserable.
People assumed that with the victory of Fidesz in 2010 Éger and the medical community would be rewarded for services rendered. The Medical Association headed by Éger had several demands. Membership in MOK had been compulsory prior to 2006 when the Gyurcsány government abolished this rule. This was a blow to Éger because a large number of the reluctant members left MOK. Fewer members, less money, less prestige, and perhaps lessened infuence.
So, one of Éger’s demands was the restoration of compulsory membership in the Association. His other demand was to have the right to torpedo health care legislation not to the Association’s liking. Orbán was ready to grant the demand for compulsory membership, which was nothing off his skin, but giving real power to MOK was something else.
Some people who know Éger claim that the president of MOK was certain that he would be rewarded with a high government position after the Fidesz victory. But Orbán had no intention of being generous, perhaps sensing that Éger is hard to deal with. So, after a few months of waiting, Éger decided to attack. He announced that the doctors’ patience was running out. He complained about the lack of consultation with the Ministry of National Resources on health issues that concern the Medical Association. He also had personal gripes. His official salary set by the Ministry was 750,000 forints. He wanted 2 million. He was a prickly fellow who most likely irritated not only Miklós Szócska, the undersecretary in charge of health care, but also Viktor Orbán himself.
At first, the government hoped that István Éger would not be reelected at the forthcoming election of the Association. They thought that Éger had lost a lot of support because of his problems over the size of his pay check that he kept–as it turned out illegally–a secret. Moreover, he was pretty ruthless about collecting past dues from those members who were forced to rejoin the Association.
The government had to be disappointed. On December 10, 2011 Éger triumphantly announced the result of the elections. Seventy percent of the membership reelected him to head MOK for another four years. The Ministry tried its best not to accept the results of the elections due to some unfinished investigation of a territorial subdivision of MOK. The Ministry also complained about the electoral procedure that was not quite according to the rules and regulations governing MOK and similar associations.
It seems, however, that these objections of the Ministry didn’t achieve the desired results, so the Orbán government had to resort to another stratagem to get rid of Éger. It took them a few months to figure out what to do, but yesterday a new amendment emerged that seems aimed at the removal of István Éger from his position as head of the Hungarian Medical Association. The Hungarian media immediately nicknamed it Lex Éger.
On May 22 an amendment was submitted to a bill that contained several new regulations concerning health issues. The amendment would change the agreement that had been worked out between the government and the associations. The upshot of the change is that someone who had served for two terms as president of an association couldn’t serve a third time. This new law would also apply to any of the office holders in the associations connected to the health care community. Since Éger was first elected in 2003 and again in 2007, the results of the 2011 December election results would therefore be null and void. The amendment would give the Hungarian Medical Association the opportunity to hold another election in October. Naturally, Éger cannot run. He can say goodbye to his lucrative and influential position. Most importantly, he can no longer make the Orbán government’s life miserable.
Éger, who is currently on an official trip in Germany, is taken aback. In his opinion this proposal is “a crude intervention in the functioning of a professional organization which is unacceptable in a democracy.” He blamed Miklós Szócska for the submission of this amendment. Éger hopes for international support. Apparently he talked to the secretary-general of the International Medical Association, who was apparently “stunned.” He announced that he is planning to get in touch with the president of the Association of European Doctors. As it turned out, beginning next year he would be one of the vice presidents of the organization, unless “he is kicked out” of his position.
He expressed his hope that Zoltán Balog, Szócska’s superior in the Ministry of Human Resources, will not risk an international scandal over his removal. Éger seems to have an ally on the parliamentary committee on health issues in the person of Géza Gyenes, former secretary-general of the Hungarian Medical Assocation and now a Jobbik member of parliament. However, there is no doubt in my mind that the amendment will pass.
In such cases the Orbán government usually wins but, knowing Éger, I would take his threat seriously. There will be an international scandal prior to his departure. Éger will make sure of that.