In a surprise U-turn, the Greek government decided to scrap a controversial hospital fee introduced at the start of the year and pass it on instead to tobacco product prices.
The €25 hospital fee, which initially applied to patients earning more than €11,000 per year, was introduced as an alternative source of revenue for the Greek government, which is desperately seeking to cover its 2014-15 funding gap and avoid a third bailout package.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Athens faces a funding gap of nearly €11 billion for 2014-15.
Instead the bill will be passed on to smokers as the price on tobacco products will increase by 5 euro cents, generating around €40 million per year, according to the newspaper Ekathimerini.
The announcement came as the 28-strong college of EU commissioners met in Athens yesterday (8 January) to inaugurate the Greek presidency of the Council of Ministers.
The Greek minister for health, Adonis Georgiadis, had come under fire for introducing the hospital fee from both the junior coalition partner PASOK as well as opposition parties in the Greek parliament.
Greek media have revealed that an uninsured cancer patient died on Thursday (3 January) because he had been unable to find a public hospital that would treat him free of charge.
However, Georgiadis said there was no reason for the man not to be treated and suggested that his case was being exploited for “political reasons".
But on Tuesday, Georgiadis said that the Health Ministry would be willing to abolish the €25 if other funding measures in line with the government's targets could be found.
The new price hike on tobacco products has already prompted a sharp reaction from representatives of the industry.
“It was the worst possible development for the sector as the decision will send the illicit tobacco trade through the roof,” said Nikos Nechamas, chairman of the Hellenic Association of European Tobacco Companies.
Greece's healthcare system has been under enormous pressure ever since the global financial crisis began in 2007.
In November, Greece's private healthcare clinics threatened to turn away patients insured by the country's main healthcare facility, the National Organisation for Healthcare Provision (EOPYY). According to the private clinics, EOPYY owes them €800 million.
It is estimated that six million people in Greece are uninsured and do not have access to medical care.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday another austerity measure did come into force. From now on, Greeks insured by EOPYY will pay one extra euro per prescription.
According to a Health Ministry directive, the new measure will not apply to those suffering from long-term illnesses.
The eurozone debt crisis has forced some governments to drastically cut their public health budgets in an effort to contain deficits.
Greece was among the countries taking the toughest measures, but Spain and other countries such as France and the Czech Republic have also taken similar steps.
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