By Caroline Pailliez
PARIS (Reuters) - France will absorb 10 billion euros ($11.1 billion) of public hospital debt, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Wednesday, in an emergency measure designed to end months of protests by disgruntled doctors and nurses.
Philippe also promised an extra 1.5 billion euros over three years for hospitals, including an 800 euro bonus for 40,000 nurses and carers earning less than 1,900 euros per month.
"The hospital crisis is nothing new. But it has gone through one of its acutest phases in recent months," said Philippe. "Healthcare workers can't go on like this any longer."
The government hopes the package will stave off further unrest by hospital staff as public anger mounts ahead of a nationwide strike due on December 5 over pension system reform, though some branded the new measures as inadequate.
The 10 billion euros to be hoovered up by the state over three years represents nearly one third of the total debt burdening the public hospitals' balance sheets.
The hospital protests began in March and thousands of health workers marched through Paris last Thursday carrying banners that read "Public hospitals in life-threatening emergency".
President Emmanuel Macron's government faces a possible winter of discontent if doctors and nurses join up with other discontented groups such as transport workers, civil servants and students threatening to go on strike.
Medics say multi-billion euro spending cuts have stretched a healthcare system that was once the envy of the world to breaking point, with elderly patients left for hours on trolleys and doctors exhausted by stressful conditions.
Philippe said 300 million euros of the extra money would become available next year. That means a budget increase for hospitals of 2.4% in 2020, against the 2.1% rise proposed in the draft 2020 budget - figures that drew derision from some medics.
"Three hundred million next year when we're demanding four billion, you can see where the problem is," Christophe Prudhomme, spokesman for the Association of Emergency Room Doctors, told BFM TV. "We're demanding a shock to the system."
Mireille Stivala of the hard-left CGT union told Reuters: "There will be enormous disappointment."
France's budget deficit is estimated at 2.2% of national output next year, so the government has some wriggle room to absorb the extra funds for the hospitals without pushing the deficit over the 3% limit set by the European Union.
"My objective is not to increase indefinitely the public debt. It is to give our hospitals some room for manoeuvre," Philippe said.
Public hospitals pay for their costs from the income they receive from the state for treatments. The state regulates how much it pays hospitals for each medical intervention.
Pressure to keep public spending down over the past decade has led to drops in the prices the state pays, and hospitals have sometimes carried out unnecessary procedures to generate sufficient revenues.
"If we are able to reduce unnecessary interventions, the freed-up money will be used to increase hospital budgets," Philippe said.
(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez with additional reporting by Dominique Vidalon; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Gareth Jones)