Greek public health system 'catastrophic', says German official

Wolfgang Zoeller oversees German-Greek cooperation in the health sector

Wolfgang Zoeller, a former commissioner for patients’ issues, says tight time frame imposed by the troika for health sector reform was 'impossible to carry out'

A scene from Evangelismos hospital in October 2013 (Photo: Association of Resident Doctors of Evangelismos Hospital) A scene from Evangelismos hospital in October 2013 (Photo: Association of Resident Doctors of Evangelismos Hospital) Greece’s public health system is "catastrophic", "scandalous and frightening" and is so bad that it cannot be given a grade, a German health ministry representative said on Thursday, warning that the timeframe imposed by the troika for reform was 'impossible to carry out'.

Wolfgang Zoeller, who oversees his ministry’s cooperation with its Greek counterpart, made the comments in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

In an earlier briefing of the Bundestag committee on health concerning his visit to Greece – including his talks with Health Minister Makis Voridis, the management of the primary healthcare network PEDY, non-governmental organisations and hospital doctors – Zoeller had called the situation "scandalous and frightening".

A former safety engineer, Zoeller was an MP with Angela Merkel’s party from 1990 to 2013. From 2009 to 2013, he served as the federal government’s commissioner for patients’ issues.

According to Zoeller, the majority of people, including politicians, were unaware of how bad the situation really was in the Greek system.

He said that while there was an awareness of what needed be done at ministerial level, “the problem is in the implementation, in coordinating the middle echelons in the implementation of the laws and reforms. I think the ministry bureaucracy must do its work," he said.

From 2009 to 2011, the public hospital budget was reduced by over 25% as a result of austerity cuts. Greece now spends less on public health than any of the other pre-2004 European Union members.

Zoeller said the way forward lay in increasing the use of generic medication in Greece to reduce costs and he stressed that Germany currently used 80% generic drugs compared with Greece's 10%. "This should be possible in Greece. It is not at the expense of quality," he underlined.

He also welcomed changes that will provide free health coverage for the unemployed without health insurance as of August (which Samaras had promised would happen from June 1), saying this was an extremely important step forward. Now it had to be seen how the organisational conditions for use of the health services would be secured, he added, noting that the finance ministry needed to release some €340m in funds for this purpose.

He also proposed changes to the hospital funding system, suggesting a system closer to that used by German hospitals and said that the health ministry was favourably disposed to the idea.

Zoeller, who will act as the German government's envoy for monitoring the implementation of reforms in the Greek health system, stressed that time was a major factor and expressed disagreement with the tight time frame imposed by the troika, suggesting that "it was realistically impossible to carry out".

He stressed that urgent measures needed to be taken in the health sector, such as for the uninsured and for pharmaceutical spending, since they "concern matters of life and death".

Regarding changes in hospital funding methods, he said this needed time because, at the end, the new system had to be functional with working hospitals that people could turn to.

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