The Robin Hood doctors of Greece

Successive austerity budgets have left hundreds of thousands of Greece’s unemployed without health cover, or even the means to pay for life saving medicine, a desperate situation which an underground network of doctors is seeking to alleviate.

Published on 29 October 2012 at 14:01

As the head of Greece’s largest oncology department, Dr. Kostas Syrigos thought he had seen everything. But nothing prepared him for Elena, an unemployed woman whose breast cancer had been diagnosed a year before she came to him.By that time, her cancer had grown to the size of an orange and broken through the skin, leaving a wound that she was draining with paper napkins. “When we saw her we were speechless,” said Dr. Syrigos, the chief of oncology at Sotiria General Hospital in central Athens. “Everyone was crying. Things like that are described in textbooks, but you never see them because until now, anybody who got sick in this country could always get help.”

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 received health care and unemployment benefits for a year, but were still treated by hospitals if they could not afford to pay even after the benefits expired.

Things changed in July 2011, when Greece signed a supplemental loan agreement with international lenders to ward off financial collapse. Now, as stipulated in the deal, Greeks must pay all costs out of pocket after their benefits expire.

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.

The changes are forcing increasing numbers of people to seek help outside the traditional health care system. Elena, for example, was referred to Dr. Syrigos by doctors in an underground movement that has sprung up here to care for the uninsured. “In Greece right now, to be unemployed means death,” said Dr. Syrigos, an imposing man with a stern demeanor that grew soft when discussing the plight of cancer patients.

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