Wed, Apr 24, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Greeks foot steep bills for health, education


Students on Monday demonstrate in front of the Greek parliament in Athens against a new educational reform that would change the higher-education exam system.

Photo: AFP

Every month, when his respiratory medicine runs out, Dionysis Assimakopoulos heads to the most unlikely pharmacy in Athens.

Amid derelict stadiums dating from the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, the volunteer-staffed social pharmacy of Hellinikon has handed out free medicine to hundreds of poverty-stricken patients.

“My wife and I have been unemployed for over two years. We need about 150 euros [US$169] for medicine every month,” said Assimakopoulos, a former baker.

Established at the height of the crisis in 2011, the pharmacy runs on donated medicine and disposables.

About 40,000 people have brought medicine, many from abroad, on-duty pharmacist Dimitis Palakas said.

Another patient waiting in line is Achilleas Papadopoulos, a retired tenor. His pension of 700 euros is not enough to cover the antibiotics he has come for.

During nearly a decade of cuts imposed as Greece struggled to avert national bankruptcy, public education and health were among the sectors hit the hardest as the nation lost one-quarter of its national output.

Amid sweeping layoffs, wage cuts and tax hikes, many could not maintain their social insurance contributions and were pushed out of state-provided health support.

“Only 11 percent of Greeks can currently afford private insurance giving full health coverage,” Panhellenic Union of Private Hospitals president Grigoris Sarafianos said.

According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, Greeks paid 34.3 percent of their medical expenses out of their own pockets in 2016.

The crisis exposed “huge state shortages,” said Petros Boteas, a member of the Hellinikon health team, which serves more than 500 patients every month.

“There are fewer doctors and hospital staff. Money for medicine has been cut. There is a long waiting list for doctor’s appointments... We had a cancer patient given an appointment in three months,” he said.

To avoid a long wait, many are forced to seek private healthcare, regardless of the cost.

A similar scenario casts its shadow over education. When Aspasia Apostolou’s son was 11 years old and finishing public primary school, his class teacher did something unexpected.

“He told us our son is bright and that he should be in a better school,” the 44-year-old lawyer said.

According to the government, public funding for education fell by about 36 percent during the crisis.

Thousands of trained staff, including teachers and doctors, emigrated — part of an exodus of about 350,000 people — or opted to retire.

A study by the London School of Economics and Political Science found that 75 percent of Greek crisis emigrants hold university degrees.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in a 2017 study — prepared at Greece’s request — said that austerity cuts had “a major impact on the demands on the Greek education system and on those working within it.”

In 2015, there were about 25,000 posts vacant for teachers in primary and secondary-education schools, it said.

Apostolou now pays 5,800 euros per year in tuition fees at a private school where her son can be assured of a well-structured curriculum.

“At our old school, the children usually come home early, so many school hours are lost because of teacher shortages during the year,” she said. “There is no evaluation, no reward for effort in a public school. You wallow in mediocrity.”

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