ATHENS, Greece – Holding black helium balloons and parading an effigy of a dying patient, striking public hospital and ambulance workers marched through Athens on Thursday to protest severe cuts in public funding for the national health service.
Health care workers held a 24-hour strike, leaving hospitals running with emergency staff. Protesters marched past 10 state-run hospitals before reaching the health ministry.
Per capita spending on health has been axed by a nearly a third since 2009 as the government made cuts required by its bailout programs, according to estimates by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. That has created longer waiting lists for treatment, staff shortages, and frequent medical equipment failure at Greek hospitals.
The cuts were imposed despite Greece’s fast-aging population and a steep increase in the number of long-term unemployed workers who have lost their state benefits.
Health unions accuse Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ left-wing government of delaying plans to hire more hospital staff, which they argue would cover just 20 per cent of jobs lost due to austerity measures.
“With the policies he’s practicing, Mr. Tsipras is throwing the citizens to the dogs. People are dying because of the breakup of the National Health System, and unfortunately the government is oblivious,” said Michalis Giannakos, head of Greek public hospital workers’ federation.
“Hospitals are lacking doctors with basic specialties and health care workers. Patients become balls that are bounced from hospital to hospital, resulting in many of them being unfortunate and losing their battle for life.”
Greece is bracing for a new round of harsh economic measures in the fall — including lifting protection on private sector lay-offs and home foreclosures — that bailout creditors have set as conditions for future loan payouts and the start of negotiations on debt relief.
The International Monetary Fund argues that Greek governments have relied too heavily on one-off spending cuts instead of using deeper, structural reforms, and maintains that high levels of state funding for the pension system are not sustainable. Bailout monitors from the IMF and European Union institutions are due back in Athens this month.
Greek Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos is due to attend the annual IMF meetings in Washington, and is planning talks Friday and Saturday with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, IMF chief Christine Lagarde, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble.
Theodora Tongas and Srdjan Nedeljkovic in Athens contributed.
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