Study: Spending cuts hurt public health

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Drastic government spending cuts in times of financial crisis may be bad for public health, a new study by Greek and American researchers suggests.

Public health in Greece grew worse in the years of the world financial crisis, the Greek debt crisis and the austerity measures that followed, according to the study, which was published today in the American Journal of Public Health.

The impact of the cuts on health was larger than expected, and should inform policies in other counties, including the U.S., the researchers said.

“We were expecting that these austerity policies would negatively affect health services and health outcomes, but the results were much worse than we imagined,” Dr. Elias Kondilis, lead author and a researcher at Aristotle University, said in statement.

Between 2007 and 2009, suicides in Greece increased by about 16 percent, homicides by more than 25 percent and infectious disease by more than 13 percent. Rates of drug abuse increased drastically — more than 88 percent — among people aged 35 to 64. Meanwhile, government spending on health care decreased by more than 23 percent between 2009 and 2011.

The cuts came when the International Monetary Fund and the Eurozone required Greece to make drastic cuts in spending, called austerity measures, in exchange for bailing them out of their financial crisis.

Slashing health care spending was part of the austerity measures. In addition to the 23 percent decrease in government health care spending, public hospitals cut their payrolls by 75 percent, some services were privatized and co-payments were instituted. Patients spent 25.7 million euros in 2011 on services that were once entirely covered by the government.

Greece also saw a jump in new HIV infections and outbreaks of malaria and West Nile virus between 2010 and 2011. Researchers suggest these increases may be connected to cuts in other services including decreased distributions of condoms and clean needles and interruptions in mosquito spraying.

“Heightened needs and increased demands on public services collide with austerity and privatization policies,” the researchers said. The effects of such a collision are predictably bad for public health, they added.

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