by Maria Spiliopoulou, Valentini Anagnostopoulou
ATHENS, March 19 (Xinhua) -- After seven years of harsh austerity measures introduced to address the severe debt crisis, Greece's public health system is struggling to provide fundamental services for patients amidst shortages of staff, medical equipment and supplies.
Addressing the parliament on Friday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras defended his government's attempt to combat corruption and waste of funds and improve the situation in state hospitals.
"I am not saying that during our term in office the health system has turned into a paradise. What I am saying is that there are significant changes over the past two years," the prime minister said.
Over the past two years, 2.5 million uninsured people have been given access to healthcare system, he said.
Tsipras promised 12,000 hirings in the national health system in the coming months and announced the launch of a parliamentary committee to investigate scandals in the sector.
The Federation of Public Hospital Employees (POEDIN) which called the latest 24 hour strike and protest rally, the Athens Medical Association (ISA) and other unions have painted a bleak picture, warning that lives are put at risk due to continuous spending cuts.
Unions protest latest changes to the social security system that was put into force since Jan. 1 this year, and request more funding to offer free healthcare to all.
According to a recent POEDIN press release, for example, many hospitals along the national highway connecting the capital to northern Greece lack vital diagnostic equipment such as computerized tomography (CT) scan, and precious time is wasted on people injured in car accidents.
"From Larissa to Athens, there is no CT scan operating on a 24 hour basis and several problems arose," Yannis Aggelatos, president of the employees at the hospital of the city of Chalkida, told Xinhua.
A recent survey in more than 60 national healthcare facilities nationwide showed that due to a lack of adequate medical equipment and shortages of doctors and paramedics and essential medication, there are major delays at emergency units, POEDIN said.
Patients have to wait up to eight hours at emergency units of public hospitals in major cities.
Scheduled treatments, including those for cancer patients, are postponed for weeks even months, ISA added.
The situation has aggravated in recent years as more recession-hit Greeks unable to bear the cost of private doctors and clinics turn to the underfunded and understaffed public healthcare system, unionists told Xinhua during Wednesday's demonstration.
According to the Federation of Greek Hospital Doctors' Unions (OENGE), Greece lacks some 6,000 specialized doctors, as many Greek doctors opt to leave Greece.
At least 17,200 doctors have sought a better future abroad since the start of the crisis. As a result, 151 beds at intensive care units across Greece are not used and newly built hospitals are not operating at full capacity.
"More than 25,000 experienced personnel left, including 7,500 during the term of the current administration. Some 2,000 interns were hired to gain work experience. Public health system can not be improved this way," POEDIN President Michalis Giannakos said.
Greek Health Ministry officials said that the numbers are exaggerated, but protesters insisted the situation is grave.
"There are 140,000 people living in this region and they want to transfer all services to one hospital, the one at Veroia, which lacks infrastructure," said Katerina, a nurse from the public hospital of Naoussa, a city in northern Greece.
"We have no pathologists, no surgeons. People are suffering. We cannot help people," said Yannis Bougiouklis from the general hospital of Amaliada in the Peloponnese Peninsula in western Greece.
Maria Bravou, from the public hospital on the island of Kos, added that the gaps are huge on the islands of the Aegean Sea which are at the frontline of the refugee crisis.
"We face a major problem and the refugee challenge was added to the shortcomings of a hospital which was operating under very difficult conditions," she said.