So far, there are no signs that this has disrupted supplies of HIV medicine. But the cuts could have a huge impact on the health system. “It is proven that the more money spent on health, the lower the fatality (rate). Cuts in health will affect lives,” said epidemiologist Georgios Nikolopoulos, who tracks HIV rates at the Hellenic Center.
Currently, antiretroviral drugs cost Greece at least 1,000 euros per patient a month. For the state to pay for all those people would cost just over 130 million euros a year. According to Christianna Rizopoulos, who collects data at the Hellenic Center’s HIV office, there is talk among health professionals that the government plans to cut its contribution for drugs to 600 euros per treatment per month, so patients would have to foot almost half the bill. The health ministry did not answer calls seeking comment.
“We are very worried,” said Rizopoulos. “With the economic crisis, there is no way of knowing what will happen next.”
“MAKES NO SENSE”
Josephine, a 50-year old HIV-positive illegal immigrant from Mozambique who also visits the Center for Life, is among those on the edge.
She has been in Athens since 2005, applied for asylum four years ago and says she is still waiting to learn if her status will be approved. She has a limp caused by severe arthritis, which HIV aggravates.
For the past six months, she said, she has received zero antiretroviral medicine because she cannot find work to pay social security contributions.
“This is also due to the economy in Greece now. I used to get plenty of work before,” she said, her small black braids tucked under a red and white scarf. Last year she didn’t work at all. Since April this year, she has found sporadic cleaning jobs, but hasn’t paid her rent for seven months.
And Greece’s preventative programs are under heavy pressure. In September the health ministry ordered that the seven mobile clinics that provide heroin replacement treatment around the rundown areas of town be moved to 32 state-run hospitals across Athens.
The move was welcomed by some health professionals, who said it would help improve the distribution of staff and treatment. Others said it was unrealistic.
Staff for the Greek Organization Against Drugs, OKANA, which provides the bulk of drug replacement treatment and reintegration programs, joined an anti-austerity protest on Syntagma Square last month. They said the cuts will make it harder to reach drug-users.
“Countries like Spain have the centers right where the problem is, here we have the opposite,” said Emi Koutsopoulou, an OKANA psychiatrist. “We now have rehab and methadone points in really posh hospitals in wealthy suburbs. This makes no sense. A drug user is not going to go out there.”
By Amie Ferris-Rotman