Financial crisis creates dangerous Greek medical shortage
Standing for hours on a bustling street in central Athens, Evagelia Simeonidou hopes that today will be the day she gets the medication to treat her severe anaemia caused by kidney disease. Twice in the past week, the slight soft-spoken 64-year-old made the trek to this state-run pharmacy in vain. Heading into the tiny pharmacy as her number is called, she emerges a few minutes later close to tears.
Copyright Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 2012
"They told me to come back again tomorrow," she said. Andreas Liakas, waiting to collect medication to treat his sister's leukemia, attempts to comfort her.
For months, a drug shortage problem has forced tens of thousands of people with cancer, diabetes, heart and kidney disease to go from one hospital or pharmacy to the next in the hope of finding medication.
"This is just going to get worse - my family does not have 3,500 euros for one box of pills to help my sister," said Liakas.
"If the government does not pay the suppliers then how are they going to bring drugs into the country," he added. "I do not care who is elected in the new vote on Sunday as long as they put healthcare at the top of their agenda - this political limbo is killing us because there is no government in place," said Simeonidou.
The Greek drugs budget was slashed by about a third this year as part of healthcare reforms agreed in return for multi-billion euro international bailouts. Greece's difficulty in paying this reduced budget is indicative of the breakdown in the country's finances.
The shortages show signs of getting worse as pharmaceutical companies become increasingly reluctant to deliver medicine to a country that has not settled debt of around 1.5 billion euros owed to the industry.
More than 60 per cent of Greece's medicine (usually the most expensive) is imported.
Fed up with being owed millions by the main state health insurance fund EOPYY, commercial pharmacists have also refused to issue drugs on credit to patients. Public hospitals, with budgets slashed by 40 per cent due to austerity, say their stocks are depleted after not being able to pay suppliers.
Many people, like Simeonidou, have come to rely on state-run pharmacies for the most expensive drugs which are handed out for free or at a fraction of the cost - but since only 10 such pharmacies exist in the whole of Greece, patients often wait in long queues only to be turned away because of temporary shortages.
Others are even worse off.
Gerasimos Kokalis, 59, was turned away from a state-run pharmacy without the 150-euro medication he needs for his son's depression.
"They told me that they only stock the most expensive drugs here and for me to go to a commercial pharmacy - but this means that I will have to pay for my son's medication out of my pocket because the pharmacies are no longer taking credit," he said.
EOPYY, created six months ago from a number of heavily indebted insurance funds, insists it has not received the tranche of aid promised by the country's international creditors, the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF), in March to cover its financial obligations.
The government has promised that the fund and public hospitals will soon receive a portion of the money owed to them.
But many insist it could be too little, too late as the political stalemate gripping the country is only making the situation worse.
Greeks, furious at repeated income and pension cuts and tax hikes in exchange for multi-billion euro bailout loans, dealt a punishing blow to the conservative New Democracy and socialist PASOK parties in parliamentary elections on May 6.
Instead, they opted for smaller, anti-bailout parties on the right and left of the political spectrum.
Those parties failed to agree on a coalition government, forcing the country to
hold a repeat election on Sunday.
The leftist SYRIZA party, which wants to scrap the bailout, came second in the May vote and is running neck-and-neck in the most recent polls with the conservative New Democracy party, which came first.
The situation also stands to deteriorate immediately following the election, as the new government will be forced to cut an extra 800 millions euros from the health budget, in line with the bailout terms.