Speaking to the most “relaxed” minister

Published: 02/02/2009 05:00

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Health Minister Nguyen Quoc Trieu cheerfully smiled when VietNamNet’s reporter said that he was the most “relaxed” minister in the Congress’ Q&A sessions. The minister revealed that his main target for this year is to successfully defend the scheme to raise incomes of doctors.

Minister of Health Nguyen Quoc Trieu.

The Ministry of Health has to deal with daily issues. It not only has to take care of the health of 86 million people, but also food safety. As the health minister, your responsibility is very heavy, isn’t it?

The Health Ministry has to be responsible for the health of 86 million people and of more than 1 million unborn babies. Different from other fields, the ministry has to work 24/7, 365 days a year. The health sector is not allowed to commit mistakes. Doctors and nurses have to work well 100 days/100 days. If they perform their duties well for 98 days and because of some personal reasons, they don’t do well the other two days, they will be criticised.

The Health Ministry is also assigned to chair the Food Hygiene and Safety Steering Board while ensuring food safety is the job of many ministries, including the ministries of health, agriculture and rural development, industry and trade and the People’s Committees of all provinces and cities, as defined by the National Assembly Standing Committee ordinance.

At the recent National Assembly question and answer session, the prime minister said it is impossible to force the Health Ministry to instruct farmers to plant safe vegetables. This job belongs to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

To have safe vegetables, we have to supervise from the beginning step, such as which types of fertiliser and water are used, etc. If this phase is not controlled, test results will be useless. The cost for testing a bundle of water spinach is VND3 million ($176) and we don’t have enough money to test all kinds of vegetables. Food safety management should start at the beginning. Testing is just probability.

Investment in the health sector is very low. That of Thailand is 16 times more than Vietnam’s and it is 120-fold more in the US. In a poor country the health sector is also poor. But we are sympathetic to the government.

Working in such a “hot” position, how can you keep your joyful and positive attitude in answering thorny questions of National Assembly deputies?

I experienced four question and answer sessions with the Hanoi People’s Council. Hanoi is a miniature country and Hanoi’s deputies were picky. They were scientists, deputy ministers, university principals, etc. My experience is to be honest, open, to take the initiative and to accumulate experiences from situations.

At forums like the National Assembly or the People’s Council sessions, we have to cite the facts, not dogmatic knowledge. Deputies raise workaday questions so you can’t give academic answers which are more appropriate at international workshops.

So are ministers who don’t have experience at People’s Council sessions like you tenser at National Assembly question and answer sessions?

I don’t think that they are weak but some of them worked at only one ministry before becoming minister. I passed four terms at provincial People’s Councils, three terms at provincial Party Committees, and two terms at provincial People’s Committees so I have a lot of experience.

In November 2007, you asked the National Assembly to reconsider the budget for the health sector, which was just one-third of the education field’s budget. You also proposed an amendment of the policy on hospital fees. Are you still concerned with these issues?

I still maintain my proposals. They were passed by the government and they are now at the Politburo. The major thing is changing the policy on hospital fees. Accordingly, the poor, children, ethnic minority people, people enjoying social welfare policies and those who deserve to be taken care of by the country would be exempted from hospital fees. Others would have to pay fees at different levels.

Vietnam’s budget for health ranks 184th out of 191 countries. In 2007, it was around 6.9% of the total state budget while that for the education field was 20%. Of VND100 for health services, the people pay VND60, VND30 comes from the state budget and the remaining VND10 from international aid. We want the ratio to be 50-50, in which the people pay VND50 and the state budget pays VND50.

Vietnamese doctors’ incomes are very low. In Singapore, doctors earn $70 per night compared to VND45,000 ($2.6) in Vietnam. That pay is for doctors in special hospitals. In Angola, the figure is $400/night.

Do you aim to raise doctors’ incomes?

I suggest keeping the basic salary under the common policy. However, health workers’ incomes must be increased. For example, the pay for night duty and operations must increase. Currently, doctors earn only VND75,000 ($4.4) per surgery, and it should be VND400,000-500,000/surgery ($23.5-29.5).

I presented this policy to the National Assembly last November. The National Assembly approved the issuance of bonds worth VND17 trillion ($1 billion) to upgrade 621 district-level hospitals. This year several thousand billion dong will be disbursed.

In addition, the National Assembly decided to spend VND20-25 trillion ($1.17 billion) to upgrade provincial-level hospitals in mountainous, rural and remote areas and specialised hospitals (cancer, pediatrics, obstetrics, tuberculosis and mental) in the remaining provinces.

Have you ever thought that it would have been much easier for you to be the Chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee?

Both roads are equally slippery. It is a pleasure to be the chairman of the Hanoi People’s Committee because the city is going to celebrate its 1,000th anniversary. But I also have many joys here because 621 district-level hospitals are about to be upgraded, and then provincial hospitals.

I’m seeking $1 billion of funds for upgrading eight medical universities. I submitted to the prime minister a plan to build the national food safety testing centre and four regional centres in Can Tho, HCM City, Dak Lak and Da Nang to assure the quality of import and export goods.

Van Anh

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