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Healthcare

Slovakia's economy stands out, but its public services lag behind

* Uneven progress sparks dissatisfaction among some voters

* Impressive growth over past decade, low debt

* Poorer marks on healthcare, education

* Critics see government handouts rather than reforms

By Tatiana Jancarikova

BRATISLAVA, March 4 (Reuters) - Slovakia stands out in central Europe as a euro zone member that has reformed its economy, kept its national debt low and attracted international investors. But when pensioner Kornel Klatt went into a hospital in Bratislava for surgery, he took his own toilet paper.

Slovakia’s growth has not trickled down to health and education, tarnishing Prime Minister Robert Fico’s credentials as he heads into an election on Saturday. Although his Smer party is expected to win, it is likely to lose its absolute majority.

Fico has bolstered his ratings with a vocal stance against immigration, but his popularity has fallen in the final weeks of the campaign. Teachers and nurses have staged rare protests for higher wages and more spending on schooling and health .

“I received good medical care, but the building was old, the beds uncomfortable and patients had to bring cutlery and toilet paper,” said Klatt, 72, who had hip surgery in December.

When Slovakia broke off from the Czech Republic in 1993, it was much the poorer of the two, with defunct arms factories and an autocratic prime minister who preferred ties with Russia to convergence with the European Union and scared away investors.

That began to change in 1998, when a centre-right government took power. Slovakia joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the euro in 2009. Gross domestic product grew to 77 percent of the EU average in 2014 from 47 percent in 1995, and Fico is promising to reach 85 percent in his next term.

Fico won his first four-year term in 2006 and second in 2012. He reversed some privatisations, slightly raised corporate taxes and expanded worker protection, but Slovakia remained an investor favourite. Strong growth and healthy banks have kept the budget under control and debt at half the euro zone average.

NOT ROSY ALL AROUND

However, the average Slovak gross wage remains low by European standards at 861 euros ($941.59) per month, less than its regional peers. That appeals to investors, but not to voters.

Slovak teachers, some of whom went on strike last month, are paid less than those in any other country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to OECD data. And at 10.4 percent the unemployment rate is far above the Czech Republic’s 6.4 percent. A third of the labour force is out of work is some outlying regions.

Fico’s government has tried to address living standards - the minimum wage has been raised to 405 euros a month, for example. But critics say he has resorted to handouts like free train rides for students and pensioners rather than real reform.

Fico’s first government cancelled fees for doctor visits, for example, which was popular with patients. The fees were meant to limit needless consultations, though, and save money for more serious treatment. Healthcare in Slovakia ranked 24th among 35 European states last yeare, according to Swedish-based Health Consumer Powerhouse.

In February, the government had to call in army personnel to secure care at one hospital after hundreds of nurses quit in protest over pay.

Fico’s health minister and the head of parliament resigned in 2014 after thousands of Slovaks protested in the streets over allegations of overpriced purchases of hospital equipment, the cabinet’s biggest scandal.

“I have always leaned left, admired Scandinavian countries, voted for Smer in last election - but I won’t support them this time,” said Bohuslav Ilavsky, the headmaster of an elementary school in Detva, a town in central Slovakia.

“Fico’s welfare packages are pure populism, but he hasn’t delivered on his promises to make real change.” ($1 = 0.9144 euros)

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