Corruption-plagued health care system characteristic of Hungary says Mária Sándor

August 8, 2016

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“I am disgusted by the government’s lies with regard to health care. The top leaders in health care need to disappear.  Not only has Zoltán Balogh, the president of the Chamber of Hungarian Health Care Specialists, and Ágnes Cser collaborated with the government, they are proud of it. They declared that in all of Europe there is not a single country where there is such a level of cooperation between special interest advocates and the government. These people represent everything other than the interests of the patients and the health care workers. I do not blame the current government for the current situation, but the ones serving them, the hospital directors and the advocates who could have done something about the situation, but did not stand up in time, and allowed health care to get to this point over a period of 25 years. The terrible state of public health care did not start in 2010. What exists in Hungarian health care today is the highest rung of corruption. It is Hungary in a microcosm.”Mária Sándor, the “Nurse in Black”

The following interview with Mária Sándor, the founder and leader of the “Nurses in Black” movement, took place in Hungarian. Essentially forced to leave public health care for advocating for patients and public health care workers’ rights, Sándor has been working as a social worker since the beginning of 2016.

Budapest Beacon: When we discussed the interview by telephone you said that you don’t engage in politics.  What do you mean by this?  How is it that you are not engaged in politics?  Or am I missing something?

Sándor Mária:  I am not engaged in party politics.  I deal with health issues.

BB:  So you are engaged in politics.

SM:  I am not engaged in party politics.  On the other hand, whoever expresses their opinion on matters of public interest engages in politics, and in that sense I do as well.

BB: If political parties invite you to attend a forum on public health, is that not party politics?

SM:  No.  I’ve always attended forums on health care where health care experts were invited.  This is how, at least according to (pro-government daily) Magyar Idők, I allegedly became a supporter of LMP, then MSZP, then DK, Jobbik and then PM, as well as of György Soros.  In other words, I formed a complete opposition coalition.

BB: How did you vote in the 2008 referendum on the public health care question and why?

SM:  I opposed the Fidesz initiative.  As a public health care worker, I believed there was a very great need to introduce fees either to see a doctor or to be treated in hospital. We felt such resources were necessary to ensure the proper functioning of hospitals.  We public health care workers wanted the visitation fee and the hospitalization fee to apply to us in the same way BKV (Budapest Transportation Company) employees receive a free transportation pass or work clothes.

BB: And how did you vote with regard to the daily hospitalization fee?

SM:  I voted no!  Neither fee meant such a large amount to patients—after ten occasions they didn’t even have to pay—but it would have meant a lot to the hospitals.  Both materially and ethically it put a new value on public health care work.  We health care workers did not oppose this, because it was intended to benefit us—however, as I mentioned before, we were not happy that we were not entitled to receive a discount as public health care workers.

BB: Did you support the partial privitisation of public health care?  That those wishing to avail themselves of health care services should have to pay for them in place of tipping doctors and nurses?

SM: They should have precisely defined what every Hungarian citizen is entitled to!  Beyond that, if someone wants to use health care services—for example a room with only one bed or a personal nurse—then they should pay for it—and for this, of course, there would be private health care.  They shouldn’t have to take their own medicine with them. In fact, I know of hospitals where patients had to provide or otherwise pay for intravenous drips and surgical thread.  But this is not a question of privatization.

BB: You mentioned before that you were regarded as a supporter of LMP, then MSZP, then DK, then Jobbik, and then PM.  Correct me if I’m wrong, it’s possible to portray anyone as something, but of the aforementioned parties there is only one that is the successor to the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Hungarian fascist party that briefly reigned at the end of WWII-ed.), and that is Jobbik.  So Jobbik really sticks out.

SM:  Yes, it absolutely sticks out

BB: At the beginning of July you appeared at the “Danube Shoes” monument to the Jews shot on the banks of the Danube during the reign of the Arrow Cross.  You posted on Facebook about it.  And during the February demonstration in the pouring rain you declared that you were speaking on behalf of the victims of “racism and exclusion.”  Was it not a serious contradiction for you to then participate as a presenter in health care forums organized by Jobbik in Komló and Kapuvár, as well as in last summer’s public health care roundtable discussion organized by “Living Monument” (Eleven Emlékmű)?

SM: No.  I attended expressly public health care forums. Expressly per our request, nowhere were any party emblems displayed where these forums were publicized.   Lajos Rig, a paramedic and anesthesiologist–so a colleague–was there who, anyway, sees the public health care situation of Hungary very well.  We did not involve ourselves in any issues of a party political nature.

BB: Lajos Rig is a Jobbik member of parliament.

SM: We were at public health care forums. Nothing else was discussed apart from health care and patient care.  We always emphasize that we would stand up and leave if party politics is introduced into a forum.  They always respected this.  When it comes to public health care, we accept a helping hand from everyone.  If they also take measures to improve health care, then we need to listen to them as well.

BB:  When you attend a public forum with someone like Lajos Rig, aren’t you sending the message that Jobbik is acceptable?

SM: I would be sad if that were the case!  But those who wish to attack me for doing so will do so anyway.  Anyway, it is not only Jobbik supporters who attend such forums, but the sympathizers of other parties as well because they want to meet us.  What’s for sure is that over the course of our travels we experienced the country’s total divisiveness, from which we concluded along with our colleagues that we need to keep two steps away from concrete party requests.  We only attend if many parties are present at the same time.

BB:  Were you not criticized by Jobbik for appearing at the Danube Shoe monument or participating in the Life March (Élet Menet)?

SM:  No.  They respect my approach.

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BB:  With regard to the October 2nd referendum, what is the message?  The reason I ask is because previously you came out strongly in favor of protecting refugees.

SM:  We are the first to help refugees in our hospitals.  The crisis hadn’t even started when babies were being born in transit and brought to us. I am proud of every colleague of mine who treated the needy with unbelievable kindness!  Our profession obliges us to help every needy person.  This is the approach I insist on and undertake.

BB: Boycott or invalid vote?

SM: I am not going to vote (in the October 2nd referendum-ed.)!

BB: Do you have political ambitions, perhaps as an independent?

SM: I would like to resume my duties as a nurse.  At any price.

BB: None?

SM: None.  What is ticking in my mind is that I am disgusted by the government’s lies with regard to health care.  The top leaders in health care need to disappear.  Not only has Zoltán Balogh, the president of the Chamber of Hungarian Health Care Specialists, and Ágnes Cser collaborated with the government, they are proud of it.  They declared that in all of Europe there is not a single country where there is such a level of cooperation between (health care) advocates and the government.  These people represent everything other than the interests of the patients and the health care workers.  I do not blame the current government for the current situation, but the ones serving them, the hospital directors and the advocates who could have done something about the situation but did not stand up in time, and allowed health care to get to this point over a period of 25 years.  The terrible state of public health care did not start in 2010. What exists in Hungarian health care today is the highest rung of corruption.  It is Hungary in a microcosm.

BB: And precisely in order that you can return to nursing, would you not consider temporarily playing a political role?

SM: Not in the sense that, let’s say, I would sit in parliament.  But in the sense that I take people into the streets, yes.  Kata Törley does not want to engage in politics, either, but rather teach.  István Pukli doesn’t, either, but merely wants to prevent the walls of the school from collapsing and the building from being undermined.  Inside the building he wants to be able to provide quality education in a worthy environment.  We are struggling for our profession, for the children or the patients.  I do not think we would be suited to politicize in a strong sense.   I want to solve the problem, not lead the problem solvers.  Anyway, where is the István Pukli of hospital directors who goes before the public and declares that he will not cooperate?  Occasionally there were one or two such sounds, but then they were deflected.

BB:  So you are claiming that the situation in public health care is worse morally than in education.  Do I understand correctly?

SM:  Much worse.

BB:  Why?

SM:  Perhaps because there is much more money involved in public health, and because corruption is much more present with us.  Moreover, it is a much more hierarchical system than education.  A nurse only has a boss.  There is a huge gulf between those below and those above, and the latter are not interested in the least in change.  What became of the uprising of the anethesiologists at the Saint Imre Hospital?  Nothing.  And the revolution of the Győr surgeons also roared away.

Mária Sàndor was born in Budapest on June 28th, 1973.  Her official name is Mrs. Mária Sándor Balogh.   She was a student at the Győr Theological College where she completed her thesis. “I was always interested in Judeo-Christan dialogue, and my thesis dealt with the Shoa,” she said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust.  She did not receive her diploma due to a conflict about which she did not wish to speak.  While a theological student, she was an Orsolyit nun.  She left the order in 1997, then obtained a diploma in infant and child nursing.  Among other places she worked in the Amerikai street pediatric neural surgery clinic and later in the pediatric cardiology unit.   Later she worked in the Péterfy Sàndor street hospital for premature babies.  After the resignation of health care undersecretary Gábor Zombor on September 1st she resigned over her conflict with the Chamber of Hungarian Health Care Professionals.  “I am not willing to pay the membership fees of this chamber,” she said.

After leaving Péterfy she was unemployed for several months.  From  the beginning of 2016 she works in the social sphere dealing with older people, about which she was not willing to speak.

Mária Sándor lives with her husband and her 13-year-old daughter, Ilona, “who comes to every event and helps me a lot.”