Greece Euro Exit Would Kill Already Fragile Hospitals

The supply of healthcare and medicines in Greece is already increasingly difficult – and if the country left the euro , the situation would get even worse, Greek healthcare officials have warned CNBC.

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Greeks go to the polls on Sunday in an election that analysts see as a make-or-break moment for the country's fate, with many saying that if the left-wing, anti-bailout party Syriza wins the country will have to exit the single currency area.

“If we leave the euro, this hospital will close down and so will many more,” Tony Rapp, deputy general manager of Athens’ Henry Dunant Hospital, told CNBC.

Staff at his hospital, set up by a charitable trust which has seen donations dry up and the number of people undergoing private procedures halve, are still working despite missing around five months’ pay.

Medical supplies are paid for in cash, and the hospital has to take decisions every day about which bill to pay first. The hospital’s hopes for survival rest on receiving 25 million euros ($31.5 million) in reimbursements from the government – and a loan from Cyprus’ Marfin Laiki bank, which is itself facing stormy weather. If Greece exits the euro, neither of these will happen, Rapp believes.

Greece's healthcare system is a mixed system, with both public and private healthcare, and most people are insured either through work or through personal policies.

Access to doctors and medicine, which is taken for granted by most of the Western world, is increasingly problematic in Greece. The troika of the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank and European Commission which bailed out the struggling country has told it to cut healthcare spending from 10 percent to 6 percent of gross domestic product.

Caretaker Prime Minister Panagiotis Pikrammenos has warned that lives are at stake.

Pensions, Salaries Cut

The government now charges five euros for a doctor’s visit – a small sum which is increasingly unaffordable to ordinary people here –and has slashed the healthcare budget by 13 percent. Pensions and salaries have been cut, while unemployment is still rising. And many of the middle classes have stopped paying their health insurance as their belts have to be tightened.

Free healthcare is being left in the hands of charities, non-governmental organizations and even the Orthodox Church.

The queue for the Clinic of Social Mission in central Athens, a free clinic run by the church, is filled with those who don’t have medical insurance. Eleni Doulianaki, one of the doctors at the clinic, warned that 10 percent of the patients they see “are in dire need” of further treatment in hospital for life-threatening conditions, but that the welfare system won’t cover them. Close to half of them previously had health insurance.

Corruption is also a huge problem. The healthcare industry is the part of the economy most affected by corruption in Greece, according to Transparency International. Greeks paid up to 20,000 euros each to jump the waiting list in public hospitals in 2011, the group’s most recent report said. While the amount being paid in bribes is falling with people’s incomes, the legacy of inflated costs remains.

The cost of some medicines is four times what it would be elsewhere in the European Union – often because there are people taking “fakelaki” (“little envelopes”) all along the food chain.

Written by Catherine Boyle, CNBC. Twitter: @catboyle01