Greece is threatened with a serious medication shortage, with the issue of medicines already delayed, after the health fund dried up and drug companies and pharmacists have not been paid.
ATHENS, GREECE (MAY 30, 2012)(REUTERS) -Greek authorities are scrambling to avoid a crisis with a shortage of medication as drug companies and pharmacists are owed as much as a billion euros after the state health fund coffers were been left empty.
Pharmacists are refusing to give free medication to patients insured under the largest state health fund, serving only those customers that pay for drugs, as pharmacists have not be paid by the state and thus cannot pay their drug suppliers.
"People are suffering, we see dramatic problems every day, we on our side cannot serve them because we have not been paid - with the result that there is a serious danger to public health," said President of the Panhellenic Pharmaceutical Association Theodoros Ampatzoglou, representing pharmacists in Greece.
The state health fund owes pharmacies about 250 million euros, and pharmacists cannot pay drug companies, creating a vicious cycle that has resulted in a delay in issuing medication and could result in a shortage in the country.
In the case of hospitals, it has already started to occur.
According to the health ministry the lack of funds in the state health fund (EOPPY) comes after Greece did not receive the full monetary installment from its European Union/International Monetary Fund bailout rescue loan. The installment that was issued in May was one billion euros short, which, according to the former health minister, is the reason the fund is short.
In May, Greece received a payment of 4.2 billion euros from the bailout fund, despite opposition from some member states following the inconclusive Greek election. One billion euros was withheld from the payment however.
"The state claims that there is a shortage in the state coffers, it is waiting for funds from the bailout agreement, this payment has been delayed because of the elections, and all of this has blocked the payments," said Ampatzoglou.
The National Organization for Healthcare Provision (EOPYY), the country's main healthcare fund - besides a shortage of funds from the government - is also suffering from reduced contributions due to high unemployment. Unemployment jumped to a record high of 21 percent in February. The increase in the jobless rate means less people are contributing to the health care fund.
"The situation worsens gradually and is resulting in being really explosive," said President of the Hellenic Association of Pharmaceutical Companies, Konstantinos Frouzis.
Drug companies, of which there are about 200 foreign and domestic operating in Greece, are owed about 1.5 billion euros since 2011, said Frouzis. The companies are trying to ensure drugs continue to flow to avoid a health crisis, but some are being more cautious in the quantity of distribution to reduce their financial exposure.
"We try to act responsibly, and to ensure the supply of medications to Greek citizens, however also the government needs to act responsibly and ensure sustainability of the distribution chain because what we try to avoid at any cost is to have a disruption of distribution," said Frouzis, adding, "We reduce our risk gradually our risk, our financial risk, by being very cautious in what we deliver, in terms of quantities, in terms of time."
The health risk is especially acute for patients with serious illnesses, and on Monday (June 4) the caretaker government announced it would ensure drugs were issued to high need categories such as cancer patients. It has also said it would be gradually issuing funds to the pharmacists this month, but the caretaker government is in a dubious position as it does not have excessive authority. The country goes to elections on June 17 after a May 6 vote failed to form a government.
But George Haritos, a prostate cancer patient, went to EOPPY on Tuesday (June 5) to receive his medicines. He had delayed five days in taking it, as he could not pay for it at the pharmacy. But the health care fund office turned him away, saying it did not have it.
"I was supposed to take my medicine on May 29 and it is now June 5. I have delayed five days and I must only take it every three months," said Haritos, adding he feared for his health. "It is cancer, how do I know it won't spread in a week to my bones or my glands, how can I know?"
"My pension is 540 euros, the medicine I take costs 300 euros, and I have three other medicines I must take which cost between 56 and 59 euros each. My pension is not enough to buy the medicines, so I am suffering. And now with this strike by the pharmacies they won' t give it to us. So I came here to see if i could get served, but I was not served," said the 67-year-old disability pensioner, who has also had three bypass surgeries and has two grown children, one in university, and a wife who is unemployed.
Public hospitals said they already have a shortage of medicines and hospital supplies.
"When people's wages are already being threatened, their standard of living is already being threatened, and then they feel that on top of this their health is being threatened because they know they will go to a hospital and their problem won't be treated because there are not enough supplies, this creates an even bigger problem in society," said 46-year-old public hospital nurse Vassiliki Kallatzi, during a recent protest outside the health ministry over shortages at her public hospital in Athens, including not only medicines, but materials such as needles, cotton, gauze, surgical gloves, and intravenous fluid and drips.
Greece passed reforms in the health care system this year to bring under control a bloated and corrupt system and reduce costs as part of its austerity program, including a limit on drugs spending by health care insurance funds. Greece spends some 25 billion euros a year, roughly 10 percent of its GDP, on health, and almost a quarter of the 11 million population is retired, placing a heavy burden on the insurance funds, which are now being kept afloat by EU/IMF bailouts.