Amid Cutbacks, Greek Doctors Offer Message to Poor: You Are Not Alone

By Liz Alderman
The New York Times, October 24, 2012

Life in Greece has been turned on its head since the debt crisis took hold. But in few areas has the change been more striking than in health care. Until recently, Greece had a typical European health system, with employers and individuals contributing to a fund that with government assistance financed universal care. People who lost their jobs still received unlimited benefits.

That changed in July 2011, when Greece signed a loan agreement with international lenders to ward off financial collapse. Now, as stipulated in the deal, Greeks who lose their jobs receive benefits for a maximum of a year. After that, if they are unable to foot the bill, they are on their own, paying all costs out of pocket.

About half of Greece’s 1.2 million long-term unemployed lack health insurance, a number that is expected to rise sharply in a country with an unemployment rate of 25 percent and a moribund economy, said Savas Robolis, director of the Labor Institute of the General Confederation of Greek Workers. A new $17.5 billion austerity package of budget cuts and tax increases, agreed upon Wednesday with Greece’s international lenders, will make matters only worse, most economists say.

“In Greece right now, to be unemployed means death,” said Dr. Kostas Syrigos, (the chief of oncology at Sotiria General Hospital in central Athens).

“We are moving to the same situation that the United States has been in, where when you lose your job and you are uninsured, you aren’t covered,” Dr. Syrigos said.…

Greece’s austerity program has been devastating. Greece’s lenders have imposed on them the requirement that individuals lose their health insurance after one year of unemployment. As Dr. Kostas Syrigos states, “We are moving to the same situation that the United States has been in, where when you lose your job and you are uninsured, you aren’t covered.”

So the European nation that is suffering most from the current financial crisis has had to drop its health care coverage standards to that of the United States. Isn’t there a lesson here for us?

But you say that the Affordable Care Act has fixed that. If you lose your employer-sponsored coverage you can always buy insurance in the exchanges (but not if you can’t pay your share of the subsidized premium). If you lose most or all of your income, you can always sign up for Medicaid (but not if your state declined to participate in the expanded program).

Greece is right to hold us up as the example of the worst health care coverage standards of all industrialized nations. The irony is that we are wealthy enough and are already spending enough money to do something about it, but we don’t. We still can, by enacting an improved Medicare that covers everyone. Can’t we learn from Greece’s experience?