ATHENS, Greece – Greece's diabetes association claimed Tuesday that thousands of lives are at risk after pharmacists cut credit to the debt-crippled country's largest healthcare fund, leaving many sufferers unable to pay for medication.
A series of meetings between government officials and pharmacists have failed to resolve a two-week standoff over about half a billion euros in outstanding state-subsidized medication bills.
The credit freeze means that members of the EOPYY fund — which represents more than 9 million of the nation's 11 million people — now must pay the full cost of their medication, which the fund normally subsidizes by an average 75 percent.
"Everyone involved (in the dispute) must realize that the true victims are those who suffer on a daily basis, as their life depends on taking their medication," the Greek federation of people with diabetes said, adding that the fight over medicine bills is placing its members' life in danger.
Just six months after it was formed with the merger of four major funds, EOPYY owes pharmacists some €540 million ($670 million), which includes debts it inherited.
Pharmacists, who complain that the government refuses to offset EOPYY's debts against their tax dues, cut off credit to the fund last month.
Bailout-reliant Greece is trapped in an acute financial and political crisis, with a new national election set for June 17 — the second in six weeks.
Its creditors have warned that a victory by anti-austerity parties, which are running high in opinion polls, could freeze its cash lifeline and eventually force it out of the euro currency, plunging the country into even deeper misery.
Already manifest in most walks of life, the crisis is taking a growing toll on the tottering state health system.
Health ministry officials on Monday struck a deal with pharmaceutical companies to continue supplying cancer patients with subsidized life-saving medication, through hospitals and a tiny number of pharmacies run by EOPYY.
The diabetes association has also warned that a growing liquidity drain is leading to shortages in vital drugs.
To secure massive bailout loans, Greece implemented Europe's harshest austerity program, repeatedly slashing pensions and salaries while constantly raising taxes. The cutbacks deepened the economy's recession, now in its fifth year, and led to record-high unemployment of more than 21 percent.
That in turn has battered debt-heavy social security funds, whose members' contributions have nosedived.
Greece's trade federation said Tuesday that its own fund — which is part of EOPYY — is projected to post an €822 million ($1.02 billion) deficit this year.
"Our fund is collapsing, as its revenues are falling dramatically," the federation said in a statement. It said payments by its members have dropped 30 percent, with a total €4.2 billion in outstanding contributions.
The caretaker government has so far settled some €200 million of the €270 million due to pharmacists for this year, and has promised to pay the rest. But the health ministry says it cannot settle older debts until Greece receives the next batch of its bailout loans, which before the political crisis broke was expected later this month.
It is now uncertain if and when the cash will be released.
The ministry also said it had secured the "understanding" of companies that supply hospitals. But it warned that there remained a risk of current stockpiles running out.
According to government deficit figures released Tuesday, in April state hospital arrears reached €1.58 billion ($1.96 billion), while the arrears of state social security funds were €2.82 billion ($3.5 billion).