Greece's economy failing, its health ailing

Karen Kissane reports from Athens on the human costs of the financial crisis.

Karen Kissane reports from Athens on the human costs of the financial crisis.

IT'S A bad idea to be old or sick in a country that's going bankrupt.

Across Greece, medical suppliers fed up with being unpaid are denying state hospitals basics such as gauze and syringes. On the island of Leros, the local psychiatric hospital can no longer feed its 350 patients. In Athens, Yannis Constantinidis takes up a monthly collection from his brothers and sisters to help him pay for his mother's medicines.

Mrs Constantinidis, 84, has dementia and other health problems and is lucky she has her adult children to support her many chemotherapy patients are reportedly abandoning treatment altogether because they cannot afford or find the medicines needed to fight their cancers.

The broken health system is one of the major issues fuelling the rage of Greeks, already buffeted by severe recession and hard-line policies of austerity. They will go to the polls this Sunday for the second time in as many months to try yet again for a workable government.

It wasn't supposed to be like this, says Mr Constantinidis. His mother had top medical insurance and a good retirement pension from her decades working for what was then Greece's state electricity company. She should be living now in ease.

Instead, the austerity drive imposed as part of the Greek financial bailout has cut her pension from ?1300 ($A1640) a month to ?1020.

The two women who care for her one during the week, one on weekends cost ?960 between them.

Her ?400-a-month medicines have to be paid for in advance and her insurance company now no longer pays the full cost and takes three months to reimburse a claim that is, if Mr Constantinidis can find the drugs in the first place.

"Pharmacies are running out of medicine," he says. His pharmacist once had to make a special trip to the other side of the city to fetch what his mother needed.

"The real scandal is for people who don't have any assistance," he says. "Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if my mother had no children. I have no children and I wonder what will happen to me if I should reach her age. Here, there is no infrastructure [for caring for the elderly]. There's no planning."

Most importantly right now, there is little money. This week the Greek media have been running hot with the story of a letter written by the director of the psychiatric hospital on Leros to the Health Ministry, begging for money for food for his patients.

Yiannis Antartis wrote, "We inform you that we cannot cope with the basic need to feed our patients, who are at this moment undernourished due to food shortages. The suppliers are refusing us deliveries of food because we are in huge debt."

Earlier this week Zoe Grammatoglou, head of the Cancer Sufferers Volunteers Organisation, warned that some patients were cancelling chemotherapy because they could not afford it.

Pharmacists supported her claims of serious shortages of expensive cancer drugs due to public spending cuts and a reluctance by chemists to stock the drugs because they fear insurance companies will not honour patients' claims for them. Many patients also do not have as much as ?2000 in cash to offer the chemist for an upfront payment, even if they do have the right to claim it back from insurers afterwards.

Athens surgeon Kostas Vagianos told The Age that patients were suffering unnecessarily because of a lack of up-to-date instruments (for example, procedures that could be performed by keyhole surgery, with patients discharged the next day, were instead being done with large abdominal incisions, causing longer hospital stays and more complications).

Dr Vagianos left the state system to work privately because he felt he could not guarantee the standard of care for his patients in public hospitals.

"There are shortages of food, toilet paper, lamps including in the operating theatres," he says.

"There are shortages of syringes usually you have to send the patient to the pharmacist to buy their own. The air-conditioning is not working properly. There should be a flow of air to move the particles of bacteria away from the patient. "If this stops, everything hanging in the air will fall on to the patient and the operation should be stopped but that doesn't happen."

Last week six large state hospitals lost all supplies of gauze, syringes and other basics for the indefinite future.

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