Cuba hikes pay for doctors at home and abroad

Cuba has announced steep salary increases for its 440,000 medical personnel, and reported that the more than 50,000 doctors, dentists and technicians working abroad are expected to bring $8.2 billion into government coffers this year.

The pay hikes come amid complaints that Cuba’s public health system, once the pride of the communist government, is suffering from low salaries and shortages of personnel, equipment and medicines.

A salary scale published in the official newspaper Granma on Friday showed the monthly pay for top-ranked physicians will spike from 627 pesos to 1,600 — about twice the average monthly salary for doctors but still only $61 per month.

At the bottom of the scale, basic nurses will be raised from 320 to 595 pesos, or $22 per month, and basic doctors and dentists will go from 425 and 468, respectively, to 1,100 pesos. Pay for night shifts, now the same as day shifts, will double, Granma reported.

Pay hikes also will go to many of the health personnel who work abroad under contract, Granma said, adding that the government plans to earn $8.2 billion from their work in 2014. The export of labor, mostly medical personnel, is Cuba’s top hard currency earner.

The Cuban government keeps the lion’s share of the money paid by the foreign countries. The medical personnel are paid far more than their brethren back on the island, but usually much less than native doctors in the countries where they work.

More than 25,000 Cuban medical personnel are currently working in Venezuela — leftist President Nicolás Maduro in exchange sends 115,000 barrels of oil a day and other payments to Cuba — and 11,400 have been contracted by Brazil. Most work in the public health systems in poor and remote areas of the two countries.

Granma reported that healthcare workers in Venezuela and in eye-surgery programs around the Caribbean will see their salaries doubled, which would bring them close to the levels of the Cubans in Brazil.

Public protests in recent weeks forced the Brazilian government to increase the payments to the Cuban medical personnel in that country to $1,245 per month. Brazil pays another $2,800 or so directly to the Cuban government.

Granma said the pay hikes, which will take effect June 1, “will contribute to the stability and quality of the medical services to the people (in Cuba), as well as to meeting international commitments.”

Vice President Marino Murillo was quoted as saying in the report that the new pay scale also would end some special payments, but did not detail them. The only special payments kept will be for teaching, special conditions and years of work, he added.

Murillo also reportedly said that the pay hikes are part of a government campaign to raise overall salaries — the average monthly salary officially stands at $20 — starting with “the more efficient activities and labor of those workers that contribute benefits.”

The island of 11 million people has more than 440,000 medical personnel, giving it the best per-capita rate in the world. About 50,000 of them are working abroad in 66 countries under government-to-government contracts, according to official figures.

Granma reported that the government’s Council of Ministers approved the pay hikes Wednesday. Ruler Raúl Castro announced in February that the salaries for medical professionals would be raised, but gave no figures.

Castro has been cutting back government spending and allowing more small-scale private enterprise in an effort to decentralize the island’s Soviet-style economy and make it more efficient and productive.

Murillo reported that 109,000 public health workers were laid off between 2010 and 2013, saving the government 2 billion pesos (about $80 million) “without affecting the quality of the services,” Granma reported.

The private practice of medicine in Cuba has been illegal since the early 1960s, although in recent years doctors, nurses and dentists have been charging fees for off-the-books procedures or accepting “gifts” to expedite some services.

Read more Cuba stories from the Miami Herald

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