Wednesday 7 August 2013

The collapse of the Greek health system

The economic situation in Greece has caused a humanitarian crisis in the health sector. When the Troika of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank agreed a 240 billion euro rescue package for Greece in 2011, the condition was that the Greek government should make tax system improvements, cut the public sector workforce and lower public spending to reduce its debt burden. Five austerity programmes within the space of two and a half years have reduced the health system to the level of a developing country and stripped a large number of people of the basic right to adequate medical care. Not a cent of the latest 'loan to Greece' will go towards the Greek health care system: instead, more than 80% will be consumed repaying interest to the international banks.

No fewer than 50 hospitals are threatened with closure in the next six months. Two have already ceased operating due to a lack of health insurance payments, which meant that staff had received no wages for between four and six months. The total debt of hospitals to pharmaceutical companies is in excess of 1.3 billion euros. In just two years the government has cut spending on health by 13% and under its agreement with its creditors, Greece must find even more health care savings next year.

Most hospitals lack essential basic materials such as disposable gloves, plasters and catheters. Children can only be vaccinated with cash payments, and the same goes for diabetics and much-needed insulin.

Like many European countries, Greek citizens pay for their healthcare by a system of insurance, with contributions from employers, the state and the beneficiaries themselves. When someone loses their job, they lose access to healthcare too. Given that unemployment hit a new record of 1.3 million in April - 26.9% unemployment - and given that the country has been flooded by one million uninsured immigrants, this effectively means that 1/3 of the population of Greece has no medical insurance and no means of accessing vital healthcare.

11,000 patients used to have bypass surgery in public hospitals each year, according to thoracic surgeon Dr Sioras. That number fell to 9,000 last year. 'The way I see it, at least 2,000 people needed a bypass and didn't get it', he said. 'I have no idea where these people are. They could be dead'.

A further complication is that Greece's public health system is a bureaucratic nightmare, with endless paperwork to fill in and hoops to jump through. Corruption is rife, not only in hospitals but also in services attached to health provision. A BBC report on 5 August reported that Greece is running short of nearly half of its 500 most used drugs. One of the problems is that Greek wholesalers are boosting their profits by selling millions of pounds worth of drugs, (acquired at low prices set by the state) to other EU countries, preventing them from reaching the Greek patients that need them.

As a consequence of this dire situation, a network of volunteer-run health Clinics has emerged to help ease the burden. There are now around 40 Community Clinics operating across Greece. The one in Elliniko has 9,500 patients on the books and the number of patients flocking there is growing fast. Dr Vichas, a founding member of the clinic, says that his clinic is the only place in Athens where cancer patients can get free chemotherapy. They are also providing 200 families with milk formula for their babies. 'We have children who are starving, dehydrated babies' says Nikitas Kanakis, president of Doctors of the World. 'At the same time, the country is suffering from an unprecedented exodus of doctors. Due to the austerity measures, a consultant will earn 1,007 euros a month from January 2004. This is less than a quarter of what s/he would expect in a western European country'.

230 volunteers, including 90 doctors, help out in Elliniko providing vital services which include drug collection drives.

This is a statement from their website: 'The Community Clinics were born from the National Health System's exclusion of the uninsured, the unemployed and the homeless. The Community Clinics cannot, nor should they try to, fill in the increasingly enormous and dangerous chasm in public health. On the other hand, we are not about to abandon our patients - we will not give up on a third of the population'.

In one of the latest posts in their blog they put out a call to try and get help for a 53 year old man who suffers from cancer. Even though this particular patient is insured, the hospital that diagnosed his cancer is unable to provide him with the much-needed drugs to help his condition.

The human cost of austerity coupled with an uncaring, corrupt, inefficient government, is reaching dramatic proportions. One third of Greeks are unable to access one of the most fundamental human rights that a modern democratic state should be able to provide for its citizens.

Is anyone listening? It does not seem so.

The Ellinikon Clinic website:


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  1. Perhaps en masse they should sue for a violation of their human rights. In this case it certainly would be a valid cause.

    1. The Greek people have fought so hard against austerity, Olga: they have demonstrated, gone on strike, including general strikes, taken over government buildings - I think they are suffering from resistance fatigue. So, you might be right, and a new form of resistance and opposition might be required.