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17th Apr 2021

Greek healthcare eroded by austerity measures, crisis

Startling declines in the health of Greek citizens and increases in the rates of drug abuse, HIV infection, and suicide have resulted from the economic crisis and the strict austerity embraced by the country, says a new, three-year medical study.

Greek citizens were 15 percent less likely to consult a doctor in 2009 than in 2007, according to the study, published on Monday (10 October) in the Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal.

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  • Hospital budgets have seen cuts of around 40 percent (Photo: Notat)

The study, which surveyed just over 12,000 respondents in 2007 and 15,000 in 2009 and employed data from EU statistics on income and living conditions, found that the reduction in access did not come about due to an inability to pay, but instead “probably” reflect supply-side problems “including cuts of around 40 percent in hospital budgets”.

The paper also blames other malfunctions in the health system related to the cuts, including understaffing, reported occasional shortages of medical supplies, and bribes given to medical staff to jump queues in overstretched hospitals.

The number of people able to obtain sickness benefits declined by around 40 percent between 2007 and 2009, “probably owing to budget cuts,” the paper says, warning worse is yet to come.

“Further reductions to access and the level of benefits are to be expected once austerity measures are fully implemented.”

While people are going to the doctor less, there has also been a 14 percent rise in the proportion of Greek citizens reporting that their health was “bad” or “very bad” in 2009 compared with 2007.

Suicides also rose by 17 percent in 2009 from 2007 and unofficial 2010 data quoted in parliament mention a 25 percent rise compared with 2009. The minister of health reported a 40 percent rise in the first half of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010.

The core of the paper focuses on a three-year study from 2007-09. One of the authors, Marin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told EUobserver that although some information covering some topics are accessible for the period since 2009, the data was the latest available for overall health outcomes.

“If I wanted to get the latest financial data from a country, I could get it in 15 seconds, while health data usually takes three years. There is an unwarranted lag between the gathering of financial sector data and data covering the health sector. And there is a great worry that governments will be forced to cut back on data collection and analysis here.”

The EU-IMF-ECB troika is expending great effort currently to ensure that economic data from the country is accurate.

“The EU should be spending as much effort on support for the gathering of health data. The health of the population is at least as important as a national economy.”

The paper authors also accessed information from medical research institutes, health prefectures, and NGOs, which provided epidemiological indicators, data on hospital admissions, and reports on mental health problems and the status of vulnerable groups.

A sharp increase in HIV infections occurred in late 2010, with the most recent data suggesting that new infections will rise by 52 percent in 2011 compared with 2010, with half of the increases amongst intravenous drug users.

Heroin use climbed by 20 percent in 2009, from 20,200 to 24,100 individuals, according to estimates from the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs.

Yet budget cuts in 2009 and 2010 have resulted in the loss of a third of the country’s street-work programmes, the Lancet study notes.

The paper references a shocking finding in a survey, also from the Greek Documentation and Monitoring Centre for Drugs, describing how a few individuals have deliberately infected themselves with HIV simply in order to access benefits of €700 per month and faster admission onto drug substitution programmes. These programmes provide synthetic versions of heroin, but have waiting lists of up to three years in cities and towns.

Whether the government cuts such as the slashing of the number of street-teams or the overall crisis is more directly to blame, the authors cannot say: “It would be almost impossible to say that it is, say a third EU cuts, a third the government’s own decisions, a third the economic crisis itself. But all three factors certainly play a role.”

“Overall, the picture of health in Greece is concerning. It reminds us that, in an effort to finance debts, ordinary people are paying the ultimate price: losing access to care and preventive services, facing higher risks of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and in the worst cases losing their lives,” the authors of the paper concluded.

Responding to the study, Eurohealthnet, a non-profit network of European regional and national health agencies, called on the Brussels to commit more energy to data collection on the affects of the crisis and austerity on the health of citizens.

“The EU should help make sure the people of Greece know the factual truth,” said Clive Needle, the group’s director. “It can use a health and economy task group to support national governments in providing evidence for the troika working on economic changes.”

“The EU treaty calls on the EU and states to protect health in all their programmes, whatever the economic position.”

Ordinary Greeks turning to NGOs as health system hit by austerity

As impoverished Greek citizens lose access to healthcare, they have started to turn to temporary clinics set up by the likes of Medecins Sans Frontieres and Medecins du Monde - clinics that had been intended to come to the aid of migrants and refugees.

Eurozone chiefs: Greece can wait till November

Eurozone finance ministers have kicked down a decision on the delivery of Greece’s latest tranche of bail-out cash, saying that the country can wait until November.

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