What is the price of austerity?
For many workers in Greece, it’s their health. It is being jobless and denied medical care, even if stricken with a life-threatening illness. Hardest hit are 600,000 of the 1.26 million unemployed who are on their own, even if they have cancer.
The bright light in this catastrophe is that doctors, nurses and other health care professionals are volunteering their services to provide free medical care for the uninsured.
Greece had a system of universal health care, like most of Europe. It was funded by employers, workers and the government. The jobless had limitless coverage.
When the Greek government looked like it might default on loans, European banks offered new loans — to rescue their old loans. But the banks demanded a ransom: higher interest rates and huge cutbacks in social programs, especially health care.
The ruthless “Troika” — the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund — stipulated that loans would require draconian austerity measures. The capitalist Greek government, eager for the bailout, agreed to the terms and in July 2011 signed the deal. It cruelly cut from health coverage those who were jobless for more than one year. These workers, considered no longer essential to the economy, had to pay for their own health care.
Since austerity was imposed, public health care spending has been cut by 25 percent or $12 billion. Doctors’ and nurses’ salaries have been reduced by one-third. Hospitals lack funds to purchase adequate medications and equipment. The largest hospital’s budget — $371 million in 2011 — was reduced to $176 million this year.
Health care is in crisis. The rich are obtaining it, mainly with cash. However, many people who had paid for private care earlier can’t afford it now. Government-run hospitals can’t meet the need.
With the capitalist crisis continuing, each day 1,000 Greek workers lose their jobs. One-fourth of workers are unemployed; 54 percent of young people don’t have jobs.
Yet, on Oct. 24, the Greek government agreed to a new austerity package totalling $17.5 billion in budget cuts and tax hikes in exchange for more international loans. Athens officials have proposed a shocking $2 billion further decrease in health spending to obtain more financing, which will undoubtedly exacerbate the health care crisis facing the Greek people.
Volunteer clinics — people’s resistance
In addition to the uninsured unemployed workers, those who owe the government money for taxes or a mere parking ticket are being denied treatment. Hundreds of thousands are seeking out free clinics, some set up by charities or medical professionals.
Dr. Kostas Syrigos, a leading oncologist who treats uninsured cancer patients at a free after-hours clinic at his Athens hospital, explains, “In Greece right now, to be unemployed means death.” Because cancer treatment is so costly, he says, when the uninsured are diagnosed with this disease, “the system simply ignores the uninsured: They can’t access chemotherapy, surgery or even simple drugs.” (New York Times, Oct. 25)
The same Times article told of “Elena,” who left her teaching job to care for cancer-stricken parents, then remained jobless due to the economic crisis. Her own breast cancer was untreated for a year due to the expense, and she arrived at the clinic with a late-stage tumor.
Syrigos said, “We are moving to the same situation that the United States has been in, where you lose your job and you are uninsured, you aren’t covered.”
In the U.S., 49 million people lack health insurance, including many unemployed workers. A Harvard University study showed that this lack of coverage costs 45,000 lives annually.
Greek cardiologist Dr. Giorgos Vichas and other doctors established an underground network to assist the poor who are seriously ill. Staff members donate their time after their regular job shifts.
They use donated medications, but have nowhere near enough to meet the need. Medication costs, especially for cancer, are exorbitant. Hospitals and pharmacies are demanding cash for these drugs, putting them out of reach for many.
At the Metropolitan Social Clinic, outside Athens, Vichas explained:
“We’re a Robin Hood network. … People at some point will no longer be able to donate because of the crisis,” which is why they’re “pressuring the state to take responsibility again. … What we’ve gained from the crisis is to come closer together,” he said. “This is resistance.” (Times, Oct. 25) n