• Cancer drugs. Roche: 'Shipments are halted to those who are not paying anything' (Photo: Derek K. Miller)

Austerity cuts not to blame for Greek drug shortage, EU says

19.09.11 @ 18:22

  1. By Leigh Phillips

The European Commission has said its austerity measures are not to blame for a decision by pharmaceutical giant Roche to halt delivery of cancer drugs to Greek public hospitals. The company warned Italy, Portugal and Spain might be next.

In a fresh example of how the eurozone crisis is having an acute impact on citizens, Swiss firm Roche has halted shipments of cancer drugs and other medicines to a number of public hospitals in Greece after years of unpaid debts.

Roche spokeswoman Claudia Schmidt told EUobserver it took action in Greece after July but that unpaid invoices go back to 2007. Under the scheme, patients must buy medicine at pharmacies if they can afford them and return to a hospital to have the drugs administered.

She said her company is trying to be flexible: "Let’s say a hospital owes €2 million to €3 million, but they can pay €300,000, then they would receive that amount for a certain time period. Shipments are halted to those who are not paying anything."

She added the situation in Greece is the most acute but other crisis-hit countries might be next: "If needed, we will talk to all stakeholders in Spain to try to find solutions. There are also outstanding debts in Portugal and Italy, but not in the range of Greece."

Ireland, which like Greece and Portugal is under an EU-IMF bailout, has not had any trouble paying bills.

With Greek healthcare spending currently accounting for 10 percent of GDP, the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank have told Athens to cut at least €310 million this year and an additional €1.43 billion in the 2012-2015 period. The troika of bailout sponsors have also told it to boost the use of generic drugs.

In February this year, doctors and other health care workers marched on the Greek parliament in protest over health cuts and scuffled with police.

Meanwhile, the European Commission is keen to wash its hands of the cancer drugs problem.

"It’s a commercial decision from a company," commission health spokesman Frederic Vincent told reporters in Brussels. "We would have to see if the countries make any specific request if this problem is conferred to Spain, Italy, Portugal," he added, noting that the EU has little-to-no powers over national healthcare plans.

Economy spokesman Amadeu Altafaj-Tardiosaid the EU-IMF bail-out has stumped up enough money for Greece to service its hospitals and that the shortage is a question of bad management in Athens.

"We’re not being insensitive. It’s a question of management of the budget by Greek authorities. Greece has money," he explained. "The financial assistance package decided one year ago covers the financial needs of the Greek state. Then how this is micro-managed is the full responsibility of the Greek authorities."

He added that the case woud be the same if the drugs dry up in Spain, Italy and Portugal.

Another EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, commented: "It’s not European or international austerity that is causing this."

The contact added: "What has to be kept clear here is that before the crisis, Greece had some of the most expensive drugs in Europe - in the whole world - because of dysfunctions in the system, corruption in the medical profession ... It was an abuse of the Greek citizens."

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