* Most healthcare salaries more than doubled
* Health service exports to top $8 billion
By Marc Frank
HAVANA, March 21 (Reuters) - Cuba announced sweeping wage increases for its 440,000 healthcare workers on Friday, including those sent abroad, citing the billions of dollars they earn for the country and the need to improve local services.
Monthly salaries for doctors and nurses will be increased by 100 percent to nearly 200 percent, including for many of the 50,000 healthcare providers working overseas, according to a government statement carried by state-run media.
The measure, which takes effect in May, will “contribute to the stability and quality of medical services for the population as well as completion of international commitments”, the statement said.
The World Bank reported that in 2010 Cuba had 6.7 physicians per 1,000 inhabitants, the highest in the world.
Cuba has been sending more and more doctors abroad, including 11,400 recently exported to Brazil, leaving local residents complaining the policy is affecting the Communist-run country’s free healthcare.
Healthcare providers sent abroad earn many times the average $30 per month of their colleagues remaining at home, who have been expected to pick up the slack without increased compensation.
There is no private healthcare in Cuba, however, some doctors and nurses have taken to providing services on the side and many say they are forced to accept presents or work other jobs to survive.
Some doctors sent abroad do not return home, though the government has never reported how many.
The export of healthcare services is by far Cuba’s most important hard currency earner.
“In 2014 the earnings plan for the export of health services will increase to more than 8.2 billion CUC (convertible pesos pegged to the dollar),” the statement said.
That amount, equivalent to $8.2 billion, would total some 40 percent of all export earnings in 2013.
The state signs contracts with foreign governments for healthcare services and keeps the lion’s share of the money. Doctors, nurses and technicians sent abroad earn anywhere from the equivalent of $200 per month to more than $1,000.
As part of a policy to equalize what Cubans are paid in the 66 countries where they work, salaries of an estimated 25,000 health care providers in Venezuela would be doubled.
Those working in a program that provides free eye care to poor residents mainly in the Caribbean and Latin America would also get the same increase, the statement said.
The pay rise was part of a general wage reform called for in a Communist Party plan to “modernize” the Soviet-style economy, the government statement said.
The strategy includes trimming the state workforce to increase efficiency and improve salaries that average $20 per month and which the government admits do not cover basic necessities.
The state currently employs around 80 percent of the 5 million member labor force.
The wage policy has focused on the export sector and import substitution in agriculture, where wages have more than doubled in recent years as have the prices the state pays for agricultural goods.
“As a result of the reorganization of the health sector from 2010 to 2013, the number of workers was reduced by 109,000 and around a 2 million peso budget savings ... something that has supported this increase in salaries,” the government said. (Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Sophie Hares)