In Failing Greek Health System, Resentments Grow

Tensions are rising in Greece’s struggling hospitals, as impoverished Greeks and immigrants compete for a shrinking amount of treatment and medicine.

The holes in the social weave of a country in crisis can be seen at its weakest edges, and in Greece the health care system is ailing. Budget cuts lead to unforeseen problems, unexpected consequences. In a country where one in four people are out of work, diminishing access to health care rouses the stirrings of a war among the poor.

“We pay for it and the immigrants get cured for free,” says one retired woman outside the Evangelismos hospital, the largest in Greece. “The hospital beds are for them. Soon there will be more of them than there are of us and we Greeks will be refugees in our own country.”

Inside, like in many hospitals in the country, doctors face a lack of supplies and a scarcity of personnel.

The health care budget for 2011 was cut by 1.4 billion euros, and new cuts plan to shave another 1 billion off the 11.5 billion euro budget. To be able to see a doctor from the state medical system, patients must be paid up on their insurance. Since 2011, there is a copay of three to five euros for each exam or doctors’ visit. Unemployment for more than a year means insurance plans expire and the visits come out of the pocket.

“Many people go to the emergency room. But when they get there, they have ailments that could have been cured by a doctor, or it’s already too late and they are in bad shape,” says George Adamas, resident doctor at Evangelismos hospital.

“In these cases, everyone wants to blame someone,” he adds.

Adamas works in adult health care.

“The people who have retired have not been replaced. Those of us who stayed have to work long hours. Six times a month I have to work 36-hour shifts.”

In another wing, an older doctor who asks to remain anonymous complains of a lack of resources, difficulties in finding medicines, and excessive overtime hours that haven’t been paid for months.

Hospital director Michail Theodorou, speaking by telephone, denies these claims: “In our hospital there is no lack of materials. We are operating at 100 percent. If there is a problem it’s solved that day.”

In regards to late payment for overtime, he says that will be rectified this month.

“The health care system is bleeding”, reads a banner signed by resident physicians at the hospital’s entrance. They make a 1,050 euro base salary (half of what an experienced doctor makes), and can make up to 1,600 euros with overtime.

“In all the hospitals there is a lack of medicine and basic equipment like gas, gloves, and syringes. The bosses will deny it, but even the health minister has admitted it. I can tell you about cases where nurses have even brought their own boxes of rubber gloves with their names on them,” says one of the members of the group, Nikitas Nanidis.

Shipments of supplies from the pharmaceutical companies have been intermittent in the past months. This summer, pharmacies refused to fill prescriptions and denounced short supplies. On Monday, the pharmaceutical association asked the government to reach an agreement with companies because their penury was “unprecedented”.

They try to treat everyone in the hospitals, accommodating undocumented immigrants.

“But there are small groups that react with anger towards them. We doctors and nurses don’t tolerate it, because when someone is sick there are no ethnic or racial divisions,” says Nanidis, adding that some doctors have been threatened by extremist groups. In June, members of the neo-fascist party Golden Dawn threatened to attack foreigners in hospitals.

“People have a lot of problems and this feeds their feeling of being marginalized. We are seeing it here as well,” says Stradis Benekos, a psychologist for Doctors of the World in Perama, a suburb of Pireo some nine miles (15 kilometers) outside Athens. In this town of closed shipyards, where boats no longer leave port, unemployment is reaching 60 percent. Two years ago, Doctors of the World opened a new center here. At their center in Athens, 80 percent of their patients are immigrants and 20 percent are Greeks. Here in Perama it’s 90 percent.

“If you don’t work you don’t have insurance for yourself or for your children. From January to September, we have vaccinated 400 people and seen 5,000 patients.” That’s in a town of 25,000 inhabitants.

Mariangela Paone