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Greek parliament approves health cuts

Source : REUTERS
Last Updated: Thu, Mar 01, 2012 04:31 hrs

By Lefteris Papadimas

ATHENS (Reuters) - The Greek parliament approved an extension of pharmacy opening hours and cuts to drugs spending on Thursday as part of a package of healthcare reforms agreed in return for last week's 130 billion euro international bailout deal.

The early morning vote, the final significant element in the package of so-called "prior actions" which Athens had promised before this week's European Union summit, follows Tuesday's approval of 3.2 billion euros in budget cuts and a steep reduction in the minimum wage.

Deputies voted 213 to 58 to approve the package, with 17 abstaining in a result which was generally expected after Greece's two biggest parties backed the package.

Greece has been under heavy pressure to match its repeated reform and savings pledges with concrete action after increasing scepticism about the ability of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos' government to push through unpopular changes.

"The Greek authorities have to deliver," European Commissioner for regional policy Johannes Hahn told Reuters in an interview.

There has been growing concern that the repeated doses of austerity will deepen a recession now in its fifth year and make it impossible to cut a public debt burden amounting to 160 percent of gross domestic product.

As well as extending pharmacy hours, an issue which sparked a revolt among lawmakers who rejected the proposal in January, Wednesday's vote will also limit spending on drugs by state pension funds and mandate generic drugs prescriptions to cut costs.

Greece spends some 25 billion euros a year, roughly 10 percent of its GDP, on health and controlling a bloated public health system, has been a priority.

Resistance to the measures among powerful medical lobbies has been fierce however with posters attacking Health Minister Andreas Loverdos as a "gravedigger" plastered over many pharmacies in recent days.

Cheaper generic drugs account for just 18 percent of the market in Greece, one of the lowest levels in the European Union, compared with 80 percent in Germany.

The latest measures aim to lift the Greek total to 50 percent, in line with the rest of Europe.

Wednesday's vote does not impose the kind of pain on ordinary Greeks that the previous cuts have done but it is intended to attack waste in the frequently corrupt and inefficient public health system.

Popular protests against the austerity measures, which exploded into violence earlier this month, have been muted in recent days with many Greeks still shocked by the images of burning buildings seen during the riots.

A small demonstration in front of the parliament on Wednesday broke up after heavy rain began but a transport strike is set to disrupt trains and buses on Thursday and unions have pledged further action in the coming weeks.

(Additional reporting by Renee Maltezou; writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Philippa Fletcher)



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