Thursday, October 25 09:44:33
By that time Elena's 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 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.
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.
The development is new for Greeks - and perhaps for Europe, too. "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.
The change is particularly striking in cancer care, with its lengthy and expensive treatments. When cancer is diagnosed among the uninsured, "the system simply ignores them," Dr. Syrigos said. He said, "They can't access chemotherapy, surgery or even simple drugs."
The health care system itself is increasingly dysfunctional, and may worsen if the government slashes an additional $2 billion in health spending, which it has proposed as part of a new austerity plan aimed to lock down more financing. With the state coffers drained, supplies have gotten so low that some patients have been forced to bring their own supplies, like stents and syringes, for treatments.
Hospitals and pharmacies now demand cash payment for drugs, which for cancer patients can amount to tens of thousands of dollars, money most of them do not have.
With the system deteriorating, Dr. Syrigos and several colleagues have decided to take matters into their own hands.
Earlier this year, they set up a surreptitious network to help uninsured cancer patients and other ill people, which operates off the official grid using only spare medicines donated by pharmacies, some pharmaceutical companies and even the families of cancer patients who died.
In Greece, doctors found to be helping an uninsured person using hospital medicines must cover the cost from their own pockets.