How Austerity Kills: Greece’s Ruined Health Care System

There were about a hundred people lined up waiting for a handful of unpaid doctors on an early Saturday night at Ippokrateion Hospital in Athens, one of the better places for treatment if you have the misfortune to get ill in Greece and aren’t a politician or a rich person who’s never seen the inside of a public hospital.

There were elderly people on gurneys, tubes stuck in their noses and IVs in their arms, being wheeled around people with cuts and bruises and coughing, fervently hoping their number would be called and a guard would let them enter into the wards where doctors, many unpaid for months, were working 12-hour shifts and doing the best they could under circumstances that would make most people get up and walk away.

They were lucky to be at this hospital, one of the older and where there’s no toilet paper or hand soap – and often no toilet seats – in the lavatories. Across the city at one of the newest hospitals, Attikon, there are two waiting lines to get and you can sit for many hours before seeing a doctor and the scene looks like a cattle yard of the miserable.

The problem with Greece’s health care system, especially during a crushing economic crisis in which the government has cut back the budget some 25 percent for medical facilities while there’s still money for F-16’s and submarines, is that the doctors are exceedingly competent and the ministers and administrators are exceedingly incompetent.

While there was certainly room for reform and cuts in a system with redundancies, there wasn’t a need to take a scythe to health care expenditures. But since Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and his ministers have free health care at private hospitals in Greece – and can be treated in Switzerland or London or New York or Boston and have the state pay for it.

To meet the orders of international lenders who want banks paid back before social services are met, Administrative Reform Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis directed the firings of school teachers, janitors, school nurses, crossing guards and municipal cops, leaving high-paid managers and consultants untouched.

One of the victims was Panagiota Nicolaou, 38, a teaching nurse and midwife with two children, and 10, who was fired from her job teaching at a state school. She’s left to travel house to house giving shots to people for 3 euros.

“There’s a lot of people who take much more than me and I don’t want anybody’s salary cut but they took from people like me,” she told The National Herald. “It’s corrupt politicians,” she sighed.

“The children who want to study nursing or to be physiotherapists haven’t any choice in the public schools. They have to go to in an institute to pay or they have to stop,” she said.

Health Care Minister Adonis Georgiadis, whose qualifications were that he sold ancient Greek history books in infomercials and licks Samaras’ shoes clean, said he’s trying to reform a system that was inefficient. He hasn’t gotten around to buying toilet paper for the hospitals though yet, or even critical supplies such as syringes.

The NGO Doctors of the World, also known as Medecins du Monde or MdM, said austerity being imposed by the government is killing people because of the health care cutbacks.

“About 873,000 people do not have access to the national health system and about 2,300 more lose access each day,” said Spanish MdM President Alvaro Gonzalez.

With so many uninsured, Greeks are turning to places like the Doctors of the World so that they won’t die. The head of the organization’s Greek branch, Anna Mailli, told AP that “Last year, 30 percent of the patients at centers in Athens were Greek, while in Perama [Western Athens] the proportion reached 90 percent,” she said.

Mailli added that the organization inoculated 9,000 people last year and helped 445 pregnant women.

That came on the heels of another report from academics in the United Kingdom that Greece’s economic crisis, which has seen the government make big pay cuts, tax hikes, slashed pensions, and reductions in critical social services is killing people, causing a spike in depression, suicide and infant deaths.

Researchers say they found new evidence that Greece’s financial crisis is taking a toll on the health of its citizens, including rising rates of HIV, tuberculosis, depression, and infant deaths.

Since the economic crisis hit several years ago, the government’s health spending has been slashed and hundreds of thousands of people have been left without health insurance. As cuts have been made to AIDS prevention programs, rates of HIV and tuberculosis in drug users have spiked.

Previous studies found suicides in Greece increased by about 45 percent between 2007 and 2011. The new research found the prevalence of depression more than doubled from 2008 to 2011, citing economic hardship as a major factor.

Suicides and mental health problems are underreported, so “this is probably just the tip of the iceberg,” said Alexander Kentikelenis of Cambridge University, the study’s lead author.

Kentikelenis and colleagues also observed a 21 percent rise in stillbirths, according to figures from the Greek National School of Public Health.

You can bet that neither Samaras nor Georgiadis have read the reports or ever had to stand in line at Ippokrateion Hospital because the truth is they just don’t care.