German Press Review: The Slow Road To Health Reform | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 25.06.2003
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German Press Review: The Slow Road To Health Reform

Needed health care reform has been the subject of political debate for weeks in Germany now. But the country's biggest newspapers say the real debate has yet to begun. And that's bad.


Ulla Schmidt and Horst Seehofer are the leading negotiators in the move to reform Germany's public health care system.

With budget deficits continuing to grow and no end to the bloodletting in sight, Germany's major newspapers on Wednesday dedicated their editorial pages to the tug of war over much-needed reforms to the country's publicly funded health care system. With little common ground between them on the issue of reform, many editorialists concluded that the country's political parties were veering toward a stalemate.

The Berliner Zeitung opined that the group most impeding progress was the opposition Christian Democratic Union. The Union has claimed it has a concept, the paper wrote, but in reality that concept is only based on a variety of interests. Union negotiator Horst Seehofer, who considers himself the collective conscious of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, is calling for status quo. But CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel wants to comprehensively privitize the health system. Merkel’s internal opponent, Hesse Premier Roland Koch, is showing himself to be a hardcore lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry. In the end, the pieces just don't fit together, paper's editors argued.

The Lübecker Nachrichten in northern Germany, meanwhile, lamented what little progress has been made in the health care debate. Up till now, its editors concluded, the only thing that has been set is the timetable for when reform might occur. But serious talks over the content of the reform plans have not yet taken place and things will only get serious when that happens. The only certainty, the paper concluded, is that whatever reform is decided upon – be it a co-payment fee at the doctor's office or supplementary insurance to cover dentures -- staying healthy is going to become more costly.

The Essen-based Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung wrote that without immediate structural changes, patient contributions would be as high in two or three years as they are right now. Experience has shown that since the end of the 1970s. In theory, the paper noted, both leading negotiators for reform could stop the powerful lobby campaigns being mounted against reform by doctors, the pharmaceutical industry and pharmacists. Former health minister Horst Seehofer is the CDU’s acknowledged health system expert. Social Democrat Ulla Schmidt, who is the federal health minister, has gotten a respectable handle on difficult matters and wants to foster fundamental change. The question is, the paper concluded, whether their two parties will let them bring about those changes.

The pressure in finding a solution to the health reform debate is intense, wrote the Stuttgarter Nachrichten. Leaders in the coalition government and the opposition may have the will to compromise, but that’s not easy. Things get tough when the parties start talking about details. And then one is reminded of negotiations over social security reforms during the last legislative period. Expectations were high back then, too, but in the end forging a compromise failed because it didn’t fit in with the CDU’s political platforms.

Finally, the Rheinpfalz newspaper in Ludwigshafen commented that external pressure has been so great that the government and opposition have been pretending to be a grand political coalition. "Our hands were tied, because the CDU wanted it that way, Chancellor (Gerhard) Schröder will say," predicted the Rheinpfalz. And "CDU chief Angela Merkel can counter by saying we didn’t want things that way, but the chancellor insisted," the paper wrote. "Do the two parties have the courage that one party does not have on its own?" asked the paper. That could be a good thing for a country that hasn’t solved its problems for years, but has just postponed them, the Rheinpfalz concluded.